Donna La Fauci, born in Auckland in 1950, was one of the three plaintiffs at the hearing on Spousal Provision/Deduction at the Human Rights Review Tribunal (HRRT) in Wellington in March 2018.
She is married to her American husband Mike La Fauci who receives a US Social Security pension, and lives in Tauranga.
This account is the edited version of her statement of evidence, given on
5 March 2018. (The Spousal Provision Donna was affected by was abolished on 9 November 2020, in big parts due to this HRRT hearing she was part of.)
By Donna La Fauci
I have not had an easy life but I have been working all my life, starting in part-time jobs at the age of 12 and until age 63. With the exception of two years in the USA, I have worked in New Zealand for 49 years. I also raised children and have to this day been an active volunteer in my local community.
When I left school on the day I turned 15, I became a machinist and stayed in that job for about 15 years. After getting married at the age of 20, I continued working, sometimes part-time, often full-time. Over the years I gave birth to six children (of whom only two wonderful daughters survived).
My marriage broke up when my youngest – twins – were five months old. Obviously, it wasn’t a happy time for us but I kept going. I worked in various jobs, including the IHC [an organisation providing support and care for people of all ages with intellectual disabilities; it began as the Society for Intellectually Handicapped Children, hence the IHC acronym] and then in the Women’s Refuge. I started out as a volunteer there, later I became a part-time support person. I worked in a mental health rehabilitation unit for the Auckland DHB for about 11 years (1988 to 1999).
Online discussions leading to marriage
I met my second husband, Mike La Fauci, online in 1997, and after chatting in a discussion group and getting closer over time, I eventually took the plunge and visited him in the USA in 1999 when I was 49. Things worked out really well and we married in November 1999.
In the USA I worked in a pharmacy for five or six months. This wasn’t long enough to be entitled to a US pension – the minimum contribution time is ten years.
We returned to New Zealand in June 2001, particularly to be with my daughters. I was 51 when we moved back, and Mike was 55.
We were in Auckland at the start. I worked for CYFS [Child, Youth and Family; now: Ministry for Children] for about 18 months, escorting children where they needed to be. Then we moved to Tauranga where we live now. At first I did home care for the Salvation Army, then full-time office administration work at a grief counsellor’s.
For the last 18 months I have been a volunteer with the local Grey Power office as a membership secretary. I am there five days a week and I more or less run the office. Until recently I also volunteered at the local St John’s Op shop for about a year.
A life of helping others and fighting injustice
My experiences have made me want to help others and to fight injustice. I have hard my own hard times, and I have supported plenty of others through their own tragedies. I feel determined to right the wrongs where I can.
But then, retirement…
I applied for NZ Super at the WINZ office on 6 March 2015, a few weeks before my 65th birthday. I gave them Mike’s details and everything seemed in order. The Ministry staff told me I would be getting the full amount of NZ Super like everyone else.
They didn’t tell me that Mike would have to apply for NZ Super, too. But the next day they called me to say that Mike’s US Social Security pension would affect my respectively our NZ Super.
Mike has received a US pension since 2011 when he turned 65. He didn’t want to apply for NZ Super although he would have been entitled to after ten years of residence, for the simple reason that he had not worked here.
The Ministry stated that Mike had to apply for NZ Super or I would receive nothing. I was really disappointed about that. I thought it was strange that they made Mike jump through hoops, just so I could get my own pension.
An application process to receive nothing
Mike knew that he probably wouldn’t receive anything anyway due to his US pension. But the Ministry made an appointment for Mike to apply. Initially we cancelled as we didn’t see the point in attending, only to be told that he had to apply for NZ Super without any hope to ever receive it.
After that I received a letter, dated 7 April 2015, saying that I would get my full entitlement, as expected. I was going to receive NZ$ 652.60 a fortnight before tax, or NZ$ 576.20 after tax.
But then no payments came into my account. When I contacted the Ministry, questioning the absence of payment to my account, I was told that the letter was a mistake and that in fact they had suspended my NZ Super because of Mike’s US pension.
I couldn’t believe it and was very upset. It came so unexpectedly because I was sure I was entitled to my full NZ Super, as it is an individual and universal entitlement. I didn’t understand why Mike’s US pension he had co-funded during his working life in the US and before he even knew me, should affect my own. I wasn’t successful with the review or at the Benefit Review Committee.
No control over the ever-changing small amounts of NZ Super
Finally Mike applied for NZ Super in early May 2015 although we still could not understand why they needed an application from Mike, as my own application had contained all Mike’s details. I had also provided the proof of his US pension entitlement which was approximately US$ 1,780 a month. Several weeks later the Ministry confirmed that a part of Mike’s US pension would be deducted from my NZ Super. As expected, Mike received nothing.
At the beginning I received only NZ$ 89 per week after tax. The amount I get changes all the time, depending on the exchange rate, and I don’t have control over it. This is stressful in itself.
My full NZ Super should be about NZ$ 300 per week after tax but now I get only NZ$ 105 per week. In August 2015 it was as low as NZ$ 53 per week, and a month later it dropped to NZ$ 38 per week.
According to the Ministry’s records I have lost around NZ$ 31,000 because of spousal deduction. That’s a significant amount for us, and having it would have made such a difference to our lives. We’re not managing to save anything, so it would be difficult if we had a big bill to pay. It also means that some items on our Bucket List are unlikely to ever get ticked off.
It's less about the money but more about the principle
However, it’s not so much about the money for us. It is about the principle. I have always been independent. When I was working I would pay for the groceries or for applicance repairs, the day-to-day expenses. I have always contributed. Now I can’t do that so easily, and Mike pays most of the day-to-day bills.
I feel like my independence has been taken away. Until I turned 65 I had always been financially independent. Even during my first marriage I was the breadwinner. But all of a sudden the Government has put me in the position where I am dependent on my husband. I can’t even purchase a birthday surprise for Mike because he would see the transaction in our bank statement.
My experience with Women’s Refuge has made me appreciate how incredibly important it is for women to have their own income. Mike is very supportive – which is fantastic – but if he was of a controlling nature, then I would be open to financial abuse because of this law.
I know from my experience that there will be people who are dependent on a controlling or abusive spouse, and it is wrong for a Government to put them into this situation. The Government seems to think that all couples are the same – but they are not. They don’t understand the importance of financial independence.
What gives the Government the right to rule into our marriage?
I wonder what gives the Government the right to determine how Mike and I operate our marriage. Or any couple. People are more independent these days than they used to be, and that’s a good thing. It’s no longer the case that one breadwinner supports the other one. But this law makes some people financially dependent on their partner.
I feel like the Government is punishing me for “marrying the wrong man”. If Mike earned the same amount of money from employment, it wouldn’t affect my NZ Super. Or if he collected a Chinese pension – because this wouldn’t be caught by Section 70 either. I can’t believe that the Government would treat me differently just because of whom I married.
It also feels like I am income-tested while plenty of wealthy New Zealanders will still receive their NZ Super even if they don’t need it. It doesn’t make sense to single me out.
I am angry and resentful about it. I am close to the limit of what I can take, and sometimes I am in tears just thinking about it. I have lived here all my life except for two years in the USA but my NZ Super is reduced to next to nothing.
The Government doesn't care about my contribution to society
There will be plenty of people who come here from overseas and have never worked here but they could get a full NZ Super because they might not have contributed and earned an overseas pension, or because their overseas pension is from a country that isn’t caught by Section 70 for whichever dubious reasons.
I feel like the Government doesn’t care about the many years I have spent in employment, volunteer work and raising children - what they call contribution to society. On the other hand, New Zealanders who have never worked can receive full NZ Super if they are not in a relationship with the “wrong partner”.
Misrepresenting the facts by calling us "double-dippers"
I also think the Government misrepresents the facts around people who draw overseas pensions. People are told we are “double-dippers”, with the Government hammering down the slogan that no-one should be better off than people who haven’t had the chance to work overseas and earn an overseas pension. But I am a born-and-bred New Zealander, I can’t draw a foreign pension and still I don’t receive my full NZ Super!
They say that Section 70 ensures that everyone receives a minimum government-provided standard of living. But Mike paid for his pension through his separate payroll taxes, and as a consequence my NZ Super is reduced! It doesn’t make sense.
Finally, the Government says that the state pension has to remain affordable. But it’s not right to target a small number of pensioners [588 as of Oct. 2017] when millionaires are still able to draw their full NZ Super. When the Government uses the word “affordable”, I feel they mean that justice is only served when it doesn’t cost money.
It makes no sense that I receive full NZ Super if I move overseas
I know my NZ Super is portable, and the spousal deduction would affect us if we moved overseas. I asked the Ministry about that in December 2015, and I understand that then I would have been entitled to NZ$ 313 a week tax-free, and, of course, Mike would receive his full US pension, too. So I can take my NZ Super with me – but they won’t pay it to me while I am here. Where is the logic in that?
The stress of the last couple of years has been terrible. I have trouble sleeping because I think about it all the time. And if I can’t sleep, then so does Mike. I have had blood pressure problems in the last two years as well, and the dosage of my medication is being increased constantly. It makes me upset just to think about it.
I just want Mike to keep his pension which is rightfully his, and for me to get my NZ Super I am entitled to. The two pensions shouldn’t affect each other.
(Statement edited on 11.04.2018)