Widow gets $260K -- a year

DUPAGE | Dying school chief set up his bride -- a retired teacher -- with 2 death benefits

Monday, September 14, 2009

As Robert Lopatka was dying of colon cancer, the retired DuPage County school superintendent took steps to ensure his new bride would be financially set for life.

Lopatka opted to give his wife not one but two death benefits from the Illinois Teachers' Retirement System -- a rare perk, used by fewer than 1 percent of retired teachers.

Now, six years after the west suburban school administrator's death, his wife gets the richest death benefits of any widow in any Illinois government pension plan -- in part because her late husband got end-of-career raises meant to inflate his state pension.

Beverly Lopatka's two death benefits total $260,000 a year -- about $95,000 more than her husband's pension paid, and $100,000 more than any other widow in Illinois gets from a government pension.

She also gets her own state pension, which pays her $79,954 a year as a retired home economics teacher in her late husband's school district.

In all, Beverly Lopatka, 66, gets $340,857 a year from the Teachers' Retirement System -- more than anyone else in the system, which is the state's largest government pension plan. And her benefits automatically rise 3 percent every year.

"I'm really not comfortable talking about that,'' Lopatka said in a brief phone interview from her home in Battle Ground, Wash. "It was my husband's pension. He and his advisers set that up. I'm just the recipient. It was obviously always a risk, like any other investment."

At a time when most private employers no longer offer pensions and people's 401(k) retirement savings have been battered by the recession, Lopatka said she knows how her rich pension checks look: "This is something that sticks out like a big sore thumb to some people.''

As superintendent of DuPage District 88, Robert Lopatka was in charge of two high schools -- Addison Trail and Willowbrook. During his final four years there, the school board began raising his salary to inflate his state pension, a common practice among suburban Chicago school districts that helps them attract administrators while spreading the cost of their resulting big pensions to taxpayers statewide.

A few months before he retired, Lopatka married the former Beverly Harvison, one of his recently retired teachers, in January 2001. He then made sure she'd end up with a rich pension after his death, partly by setting up what's called a "reversionary annuity" -- a rarely used benefit, usually taken by someone who's dying because, for them, it can provide their survivors with twice as much money.

"TRS did know that Mr. Lopatka was dying when he elected to take a reversionary annuity," said Eva Goltermann, a spokeswoman for the teacher pension plan. "TRS does not have the authority under state law to deny members a reversionary annuity, even if they're dying.''

Only 188 of the 325,000 members of the Teachers' Retirement System have signed up for the perk.

To fund the reversionary annuity for his wife, Lopatka agreed to reduce his state pension by about 12 percent.

Two years after he retired, Lopatka died from colon cancer on March 6, 2003. He was 57.

His widow gets half of his pension -- which has now grown to $99,104 a year, thanks to annual 3 percent cost-of-living increases -- plus the annuity, which pays $161,799.

Since her husband died, she has been paid more than $1.6 million in death benefits -- triple the $536,249 Lopatka contributed to his pension and the annuity.

Between her own pension and her husband's death benefits, Lopatka has been paid more than $2.2 million by the Teachers' Retirement System.