Centrelinked

Declaring a relationship on paper. Photo Imogen Hartmann.
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Can personal details required on relationships force "unfair" financial co-dependence? Imogen Hartmann reports.

There were many things Jason* had to consider before starting his degree in paramedicine. He would need to work part-time in order to pay his bills and rent. He would need to live out of home because his parent’s home in rural Victoria was too far from his campus in Melbourne CBD. He would also need to work out how he would balance his studies with other commitments in his life such as sport and social events.

But he never thought he would need to consider committing fraud.

In this case, the “fraud” refers to hiding from Centrelink that he was living with his girlfriend at the time. But years later Jason still maintains that he never thought of what he’d done as wrong.

“I never looked at ticking ‘no’ on a form as fraudulent activity… I just didn’t consider us to be that kind of couple.”

He’s referring to the form that anyone applying for Centrelink assistance must fill out regarding their living arrangements, financial assets, employment and relationship status.

But if you declare that you are in a de-facto relationship, you must provide all your partner’s income and asset details, which may affect your Centrelink payments.

This is something that students, or recent graduates like Jason, feel unfairly forces financial co-dependency on their relationships.

In 2013, Jason and his girlfriend at the time, Ally, both decided to go to university. Jason was studying paramedicine, and Ally was studying teaching. They knew that they wouldn’t be able to work full-time any more, so to support their financial needs they applied for Youth Allowance – the Australian government’s financial assistance scheme for those aged 24 or younger.

But when it came to declaring if he was in a de-facto relationship, Jason chose to say that he was not.

Jason says that he didn’t believe that a form could determine the nature of his relationship better than he could, and that each couple might choose to handle their finances differently, regardless of their living arrangements.

The Department of Human Services (DHS) was unable to comment on the above, but its website states, ‘If you have a partner, we generally consider you a couple.’

The DHS website further explains that if you are living with your partner, they may need to assess your relationship based on the following five factors: the financial aspects of your relationship, the nature of your household, the social aspects of your relationship, if you have a sexual relationship, and the nature of your commitment to each other.

Jason says that he felt like the nature of his relationship was “none of anyone’s business”. But, more importantly, he stressed that he would not have been able to afford to study if he hadn’t received his full Centrelink entitlements.

“Without the payments I would’ve have had to live at home, which would have meant massive commutes and probably wouldn’t have made going to uni a viable option for me.”

According to the DHS website, the maximum fortnightly payment a member of a couple (with no children) on Youth Allowance can receive is $455.20 per fortnight. This payment will start to decrease after an individual has earned more than $437 in the fortnight. However, if the person is a member of a couple, their payments will start to decrease after their partner has earned over a certain threshold.

In short, this means that every dollar your partner earns over a certain threshold directly detracts from your payments and vice versa. So, if you receive lesser or no Centrelink payments, you could be depending on your partner’s earnings to pay the bills.

He says that this wasn’t in keeping with their relationship dynamic, as they had no shared bank accounts and kept all their finances separate.

He also says that while on Youth Allowance he still lived pay-check to pay-check, and that the Centrelink payments didn’t make things dramatically easier for him.

“If we weren’t together, I would have still lived the same lifestyle. It’s not like we were f***ing rolling in it.”

A 2017 student housing survey conducted by Anglicare showed that, out of the students living off-campus, most of them had to live with roommates and/or partners in order to afford their rent payments even with government assistance money.

The same survey also showed that 85 per cent of students didn’t believe that the Centrelink payments were enough to cover the costs of living and studying.

Jason says that another reason they chose not to declare their relationship status was because the process of applying for Youth Allowance and reporting every fortnight was difficult enough individually without it being linked to another person.

“We just knew it was going to be too complicated and messy to do it like that, because it was complicated and messy just to do it by yourself.”

Recent law graduate, Sarah* can attest to the complexities of DHS study assistance programs, after she was slapped with a $50,000 debt at the start of her fourth year of university. Centrelink issued the fine when it claimed that Sarah had not been reporting her partner’s income for the past four years. This was due to an administrative error however, because Sarah had declared their relationship when she first moved in with her partner who was working in retail at the time.

After appealing the decision, Sarah was able to get the debt significantly reduced, but she says that the ordeal took a huge emotional toll on her, and she believes her education suffered as a result. She also said that the appeal process was so unclear, that had she not had legal training, she would not have known her options.

“Even knowing that legally I had a foot to stand on, I lost so many nights of sleep over this, on top of the stress of my last year of law school – it was horrible.”

Sarah knew that she had declared having a partner, because she vividly remembered filling out a ‘partner detail form’, where her boyfriend had to disclose all his income and assets – sharing details which they had not yet shared among themselves. She said the process felt invasive as they hadn’t decided to share that information within their relationship but were forced to do so, just because she was studying.

She also says that despite trawling through the Social Security schedules on the DHS website to understand her legal rights, she still has no idea why her payments were based on her partner’s income.

“There’s no reason to suggest that your partner’s going to support you like your parents might – it makes no sense to me.”

When asked how he would have felt if his payments were reduced because of what his girlfriend had earned, Jason says it’s the kind of thing that would put a strain on a relationship.

“Not only does it create a massive imbalance in the relationship, it degrades the person studying as well.”

Jason is adamant that he doesn’t think relying on a partner’s income is ever a good idea, especially on Youth Allowance, where the recipients are young and probably in relatively new relationships.

He now works as a paramedic and talks about how he’s seen money control escalate into domestic violence situations.

“I’ve seen it on the road before. When we go to domestic violence jobs, there’s a list of questions that police ask the victim, and a lot of those questions are about whether that person feels isolated or controlled. So, if you’ve got one person who earns the majority of the money, it’s really making the other person vulnerable.”

Brad Klontz, a financial psychologist, told Creditcards.com that financial dependency can often lead to crisis, even if there is no abuse present in a relationship.

Ultimately, the choice to lie to Centrelink is one that Jason would make again. As a tax-payer now, he still believes that relationships should be left out of the Youth Allowance equation all together.

“I don’t feel like I defrauded the government at all. I used the study assistance program as assistance to study and the day I finished studying I cancelled my Centrelink payments – and I was happy to be done with it.”

*The interviewee names have been changed.