Widow challenges feds over CPP sur­vivor ben­e­fits age re­stric­tion

The Hamilton Spectator - - FRONT PAGE - JOR­DAN PRESS

OT­TAWA — Daniel Derk­sen was, by all ac­counts, the model of per­fect health.

Then one day, the Kitch­ener man com­plained about stom­ach pains and went to see a doc­tor. Four months later, he died, the re­sult of an ag­gres­sive can­cer­ous tu­mour that didn’t re­spond to chemo­ther­apy, ra­di­a­tion or mul­ti­ple surg­eries. He was 38.

His wife of 11 years, Jil­ian, was de­nied sur­vivor ben­e­fits through the Canada Pen­sion Plan. The Kitch­ener res­i­dent is now chal­leng­ing the rule to the fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s fi­nal ap­peals body, the so­cial se­cu­rity tri­bunal, ar­gu­ing it is based on faulty logic.

Any­one un­der age 35 who loses a spouse only re­ceives CPP sur­vivor ben­e­fits if they have chil­dren or a dis­abil­ity. Jil­ian, who was 10 weeks shy of her 35th birth­day when Derk­sen died, has nei­ther.

In­stead, she will have to wait 30 years to col­lect his ben­e­fits — 60 per cent of what he’d have been el­i­gi­ble for in re­tire­ment, ad­justed for in­fla­tion from date of death — even though she needs the money now.

Jil­ian had to cover $20,000 in fu­neral costs. Derk­sen had no life in­sur­ance nor work ben­e­fits; he’d been off work shortly be­fore his ill­ness, the re­sult of a car ac­ci­dent. Nor did the cou­ple have mort­gage in­sur­ance.

“I had to sell my home that he built for us,” she said. “That was our dream home that we built to­gether, and I had to lose that, too, on top of ev­ery­thing.”

The age rule is in place be­cause a sur­vivor with no chil­dren or dis­abil­ity ought to be able to adapt fi­nan­cially to the loss of their part­ner by go­ing back to work, the gov­ern­ment ar­gues. The sur­vivor’s pen­sion, by de­sign, pro­vides in­creased ben­e­fits to those deemed least able to re­cover fi­nan­cially.

A 2004 Sta­tis­tics Canada re­search paper found that in the year af­ter a hus­band’s death, wid­ows in higher in­come brack­ets saw sharper de­clines in their house­hold in­come, but cau­tioned that “over the longer term, their sit­u­a­tion could be quite dif­fer­ent.”

Experts con­tacted for this story couldn’t point to any de­fin­i­tive data to sug­gest that younger wid­ow­ers do bet­ter fi­nan­cially over time.

When fi­nance min­is­ters agreed last year to changes to the CPP, they amended the way sur­vivor ben­e­fits are cal­cu­lated, but not the age re­quire­ments. CPP is sub­ject to a reg­u­lar re­view, the re­sults of which are to be re­leased next year.

At an event last month tout­ing the CPP changes, Fi­nance Min­is­ter Bill Morneau said mea­sures like the sur­vivor ben­e­fit would be part of on­go­ing dis­cus­sions with pro­vin­cial coun­ter­parts, whose ap­proval is re­quired for any changes to CPP.

“For ad­di­tional en­hance­ments or changes to the Canada Pen­sion Plan, it re­quires us to con­sider them to­gether with the prov­inces and to think about the im­pacts, both pos­i­tive and negative: how they will pos­i­tively im­pact peo­ple, what the cost will be for peo­ple in terms of the sav­ings they put in place,” Morneau said at the time.

“As we look at those mea­sures, as we look at the im­pli­ca­tions, then we come to­gether to de­lib­er­ate.”

As part of the changes to CPP, the fi­nance min­is­ters agreed to make changes to how sur­vivor ben­e­fits were cal­cu­lated, but only on the new, en­hanced por­tion of the pub­lic pen­sion plan. No other changes were made to sur­vivor ben­e­fit rules.

Jil­ian Derk­sen first ap­plied for sur­vivor ben­e­fits in 2016 and Ser­vice Canada says her forms were filled out cor­rectly.

Fol­low­ing a phone call from a Ser­vice Canada agent, a re­jec­tion let­ter and a call from the of­fice of her lo­cal MP, Mar­wan Tab­bara, Ser­vice Canada took a sec­ond look at her re­quest, but main­tained its po­si­tion.

“Un­for­tu­nately, she was not el­i­gi­ble for the CPP sur­vivor’s pen­sion be­cause she was un­der 35 at her hus­band’s time of death, not dis­abled and not a rais­ing a de­pen­dent child,” an ESDC spokesper­son said. “Mrs. Derk­sen will be able to reap­ply for the CPP sur­vivor’s pen­sion once she turns 65, or sooner if she be­comes dis­abled.”

Derk­sen doesn’t even know how much she will be en­ti­tled when that time comes.

“They don’t even want to tell you what the com­pen­sa­tion would be,” she said.

HAN­NAH YOON, THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

Jil­ian Derk­sen’s hus­band died in June 2016, 10 weeks shy of her 35th birth­day, leav­ing her with­out any ac­cess to CPP sur­vivor ben­e­fits.

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