WelCom News
A newspaper for the Wellington and Palmerston North Catholic Dioceses

Funeral dignity for the poor


November 2013

Jim Consedine

Even the puppies under the table eat the crumbs from the table. (Mark 7)

The Catholic Worker Movement has won a victory for one of its community members who was ‘physically and mentally incapacitated’ when his wife died two years ago. The High Court in Christchurch has allowed that a funeral grant be given to the surviving spouse instead of to the estate of the deceased.

This is a significant win for the poor with Justice Stephen Kos ruling that the funeral grant of $1,971.30, which is available from Work and Income when there is clearly no money to pay for a proper funeral, can be used as Parliament originally intended – to aid the spouse or family during the early weeks of bereavement.

This means that the four-week terminal benefit Work and Income pays need not be used for funeral costs but can be used ‘to tide the family over while it adjusts to the loss of economic assistance the benefit provides’.

This is a major victory for the poorest in New Zealand who have been illegally shut out of benefits to which they were entitled. The judge has made a wise and fair decision in awarding the applicant the payments that Parliament originally intended that he have.

While it will affect only a few hundred people each year, it is a significant victory for the most powerless people who usually have no redress over these matters.

The man at the centre of the case owned nothing when his wife died in August 2011. Catholic Worker, acting on the man’s behalf, organised and conducted the entire funeral process. A funeral can cost $6000 to $9500. Catholic Worker provided a simple funeral for $1400 and sought redress from WINZ on his behalf, applying for a portion of the funeral grant. Three times this was denied by various tribunals – before the High Court declared their process illegal.

The funeral grant is available, under strict conditions, only to those who cannot afford a funeral for a loved one. Currently a family can apply for a grant or a portion thereof to cover certain nominated costs such as cremation fee, burial costs or newspaper notice. Some 5,504 grants were paid in the year to June 2012, of which 1659 were paid to surviving spouses. Proportionally, given the thousands who die every year in New Zealand, only a small number of families are eligible.

Justice Kos’s Judgment said that the woman ‘lived and died in poverty’, and concluded (paragraphs 51-54) that the Ministry’s current payment policy ‘is unlawful, the terminal benefit should have been paid to the spouse not to the estate, and the Appeal is allowed.’

It might mean only a few more crumbs from the table, but sometimes, that is all the poor ever get.