Are former NFL players, wives and widows being denied the Legacy Pension survivor benefits?

By Jeff Nixon
Sep. 12, 2017

I was recently contacted by Liz Nicholson-Sullivan, the wife of retired NFL player Gerry Sullivan. She wanted me to know about a situation that affected her husband’s attempt to name her as the beneficiary under the NFL Legacy benefit.

Before I discuss this issue in detail, I need to give everyone a little background information.

Gerry Sullivan played for the Cleveland Browns from 1974 to 1981 and is eligible for Pension benefits under the Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle NFL Pension Plan. He is also one of approximately 4,700 players who are eligible for the Legacy Benefit, a supplemental pension for pre-1993 players that was implemented on August 1, 2011 as part of the Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Gerry currently receives monthly NFL Disability payments and under the rules of the NFL Retirement Plan, if a player’s disability payments are higher than the combination of their Benefit Credit Pension and their Legacy Credit Pension payments, they will receive Disability payments. All NFL Disability payments cease when a former player dies, but then the survivor benefits are supposed to kick in under the Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle Pension Plan and the Legacy Pension Benefit.

The NFL Retirement Playbook Summary Plan Description clearly states that “Your Benefit Credit Pension and Legacy Credit Pension will be paid in the form of a Life Only Pension if you are single - and a Qualified Joint and Survivor Annuity if you are married, unless you choose an optional form of payment.”

For some reason, the NFL Player Benefits office told Gerry and his wife that, due to the fact that he was receiving NFL disability payments, he was not eligible for the Legacy Benefit and was not allowed to designate his wife as the beneficiary – in effect, denying her survivor payments.

After going back and forth with the folks at the NFL Player Benefits office and getting nowhere, Liz hired an attorney to deal with this situation. Here is an excerpt from the letter that her attorney, Patrick Spangler, sent to the Retirement Board:

"We have communicated with Nicole Idowu and LaShay Rose on several occasions, the most recent of which was February 24, 2017. Ms. Rose confirmed that Mr. Sullivan had not elected his Legacy Benefit and was not eligible to receive a Legacy Benefit, either in the past or now because his disability benefit is higher. Ms. Rose also stated that Mr. Sullivan could not elect a survivor benefit for his Legacy Benefit at the time he turned age 65 because he was not eligible for the Legacy Benefit. We requested the entire benefit file for Mr. Sullivan, which we recently received. There is no indication that Mr. Sullivan had previously elected his Legacy Benefit in 2011, which is consistent with our communications with the NFL Player Benefits Office. However, Mr. Sullivan remained eligible and should have been allowed to elect a form of benefit when he turned 65, at which point he was married to his current spouse. Although we understand that Mr. Sullivan is not eligible to receive additional pension benefits at this time by electing the Legacy Benefit (because his disability benefit is greater), he would like to make an election for his Legacy Benefit at this time which he is being precluded from doing in conflict with the Plan."

You can see Attorney Spangler's entire letter at this link: Letter to Retirement Board

Here is the response letter from the Groom Law Group (lawyers for the NFL Pension Plan) acknowledging Gerry’s right to designate his wife as the beneficiary of his Legacy Benefit: Groom Law Group Letter

This particular story had a happy ending. However, the fact remains; None of this should have happened in the first place.

The NFL Benefits Office is the “Front Gate” for former players inquiring about their benefits. The administrators and staff are supposed to be the experts. So, if former players and their wives are being told that they are not eligible for certain benefits, some will just give up and take no for an answer. Fortunately, Liz Sullivan was not one of them. She pursued this benefit on behalf of her husband (at considerable cost), but in the end, they succeeded in getting what was rightfully theirs.

It appears that this issue is only affecting players that were, or still are, receiving disability benefits and are also eligible for the Legacy benefit.

In light of the Groom Law Group’s ruling on Gerry Sullivan’s right to designate a beneficiary, two big questions need to be answered:

Have other former players, who received NFL disability, been denied the right to designate a beneficiary under the Legacy Benefit?

Have widows of former players, who were receiving disability, been denied the monthly survivor benefit payments under the Legacy Benefit?

I don’t know if any other former players, who are receiving NFL disability, have been denied the right to name a beneficiary, or if the widows of former players who were on NFL disability have been denied a survivor monthly payment. What I do know is that out of 4,700 former players who qualified for the Legacy benefit, it’s not unrealistic to assume that some of the players receiving disability were also being told by the NFL Player Benefits office that they were not eligible for the Legacy survivor benefits.

The NFL Disability Plan Annual Report ending March 31, 2106 disclosed that approximately $99 million in benefits were paid to participants and beneficiaries. It doesn’t say how many players or beneficiaries were receiving payments, but according to the NFL Retirement Playbook, sixty players became eligible for total and permanent disability benefits in 2011 and another eighty-four players in 2012. Hundreds of players have received NFL disability before and after those years, but I have no way of knowing how many of them were also eligible for the Legacy benefit.

I wonder if anyone from the NFL Player Benefits office has notified these former players to let them know that they have the right to designate a beneficiary and that their wives, children, and others may be eligible to receive a survivor monthly payment? Have they contacted the widows?

The NFL Player Benefits office is under no obligation to contact former players or widows to inform them that they should apply for Pension benefits or survivor benefits. The Retirement Plan states that “Unless payment is required by federal law, your Benefit Credit Pension or Legacy Credit Pension will not begin until you have completed and submitted your application to the Plan Office.”

To their credit, the NFL Player Benefits office has an excellent website for former players and active players who want to view their benefits, but unless you, your wife, a widow, or your legal representative initiate the process of applying for a benefit, you will not receive it.

I want to make one thing perfectly clear. I don’t think that anyone at the NFL Player Benefits office, Retirement Board, or the Groom Law Group has deliberately given incorrect information or advice to former players, wives, or anyone else.

I have spoken to the NFL Player Benefits Office Pension Coordinator, LaShay Rose on several occasions in the past and she has always been helpful and has tried to answer my questions to the best of her ability. She has several people above her that determine what their office communicates to anyone calling about eligibility, benefits, processes and procedures.

I have also spoken with Jeff Van Note, one of the three NFLPA appointed members of the Retirement Board. Although he was not aware of this particular situation, he said he would look into it and get back to me with more information.

With so many of our alumni brothers suffering from cognitive impairments caused by brain injuries, it’s not hard to see how the process of applying for benefits and remembering deadlines could slip their minds – and that is why it often falls upon the wife, children, family members, relatives and legal representatives to help former players obtain their benefits. Liz did this for her husband and in doing so, she may have set a precedent that will allow former players receiving disability the right to designate beneficiaries under the Legacy benefit and allow their wives the right to receive Legacy survivor benefits.

It’s no wonder Liz Nicholson-Sullivan was awarded the "Sylvia Mackey - Woman of the Year Award" in 2017.

You can read an article and watch a fantastic video documentary by ESPN’s Mark Fainaru-Wada about Gerry & Liz Sullivan at this link: NFL families battling effects of brain disease In the article, Mr. Fainaru-Wada - a champion of former players in his own right - interviews Rickey and Lorraine Dixon and several other wives and family members who are taking care of former players as they struggle try to navigate the process of applying for Concussion Settlement benefits.

Navigating the process of applying for the Legacy survivor benefits should probably be added to that struggle.

Just for the record, this is not the first time that the wives and widows of former players have been forced to deal with issues related to the Legacy Benefit.

When the benefit was first established in the 2011 CBA, it excluded 320 widows whose husbands had died before August 4, 2011. I wrote an article about this shortly after Sylvia Mackey notified me about the problem. After going back and forth on this, both the NFL and NFLPA finally agreed to pay those 320 widows, but I can’t help but wonder how many of them had husbands receiving NFL disability - and if any of them were denied the Legacy survivor benefit.

The NFL and the NFLPA love to talk about the “Legacy” of former players, but their words must be backed by their actions - not only for the men that played the game, but for their wives, children and loved ones that stood by them, cared for them, and in many cases laid them to rest.

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines Legacy as "a gift by will, especially of money or other personal property.", and "something transmitted by or received from an ancestor or predecessor from the past."

Our Legacy….our “gift”…is something we earned through our blood, sweat, and tears in the NFL. We should be able to provide that gift to our loved ones after we have passed away.

I hope this article will shed some light on this issue and prompt former players, wives and widows to inquire about their rights under the Legacy Pension survivor benefits.

I also hope that the NFL Player Benefits Office and the NFL Retirement Board will notify anyone who may have received incorrect information about the Legacy survivor benefits.