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NZ Herald in 2006

Pensioners line up to take Government to court

NZ Herald on 22 May 2006

Four years after turning 65, Aucklander Ruth Humphrey is still fighting to get full New Zealand superannuation.

After a lifetime of working and paying taxes in New Zealand, the former assistant librarian was told she would get nothing - solely because her husband receives an American pension.

Ruth is not alone. More than 52,000 pensioners and their spouses have their Super reduced because of overseas pensions.

Some receive nothing at all, others a tiny fraction of their entitlement.

Another lot, who upon retirement move overseas to be with family, get nothing too.

The disgruntled - upset over losing $185 million each year in superannuation payments - are preparing to take their fight to the courts. Moves were announced last week to file a class action against the Government.

At the heart of the matter is legislation that enables the Government to compel pensioners to give up retirement annuities consisting of personal work savings in order to receive New Zealand super.

It makes no distinction between taxpayer-funded pensions such as New Zealand Super and contributory pension schemes in the United States, Canada and Britain, where workers have a percentage of their income paid into a government-managed fund.

Appeals to exempt these pensions have met with inaction, and the malcontents - who include New Zealanders who have worked overseas, long-settled American, British and Dutch immigrants and their spouses - are becoming fed up.

Spokesman Chris Arnesen said more than 300 people had registered their interest in filing a class action against the Government while a nationwide petition calling for a full-scale parliamentary inquiry already has gained 3000 signatures with six weeks to go.

In most instances, the individual amounts are not large - but nevertheless, as Ruth Humphrey points out, every dollar makes a difference in a pensioner's quality of life.

"I really need the money," she said. "I worked until I was 65 and had planned my life around getting full superannuation."

It took her a year and a half of battling the bureaucracy before she started receiving a partial super. Her most recent payment on May 1 was $161.50, a fraction of the $406 she is meant to receive every fortnight.

"I don't want to get more than one pension but I'm not even getting one full pension now," said Mrs Humphrey.

Meanwhile, her engineer husband Bill, at 77, continues to work. He is entitled to receive NZ Super, but has chosen not to. He gets $1600 a month from his US social security fund; a fund built up over a lifetime of personal and employer contributions and which cost the US Government only administration costs.

Mrs Humphrey said the NZ Government decided she had married the wrong man.

"The sole factor which the Government has looked at in my case is that I am married to an American," she said. "If Bill and I got divorced today, I would get my pension tomorrow. My case is an open and shut case of discrimination by the Government."

Budget documents released on Thursday indicated that the results of a review would be considered by the Government this year.


* NZ super payments are reduced by the amount a single person or couple receive from overseas pensions.

* The sore point is that the law makes no distinction between taxpayer-funded schemes (such as New Zealand's) and contributory schemes operating in places such as the US, Canada, Britain and the Netherlands, where workers contribute directly from their pay.

* 52,000 New Zealand pensioners are affected - despite the Government's assertions that New Zealand super is not means-tested, which allows pensioners receiving private NZ superannuation to also draw a full NZ Government pension.