‘My husband has just died aged 28. Now I’m counting the pennies’: Grieving mother and children denied support after benefit changes

‘It’s heartbreaking enough having to ask for help in the first place – I’d much rather still have Dan here and struggle with his illness. But it’s almost like I have to beg for it now. It’s degrading’

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Monday 18 February 2019 11:32 GMT
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Sarah Hales was pregnant with her second child when her husband Dan was diagnosed with brain cancer at the age of 25. After three years of continual hospital appointments and distressing treatment, he passed away, leaving her and their three children – aged 11, three and one – to confront a life without him.

Two months on, Sarah hasn’t started grieving. Weeks after Dan’s death, she received a letter from the government stating that she was not eligible for any bereavement benefit. The 29-year-old has since been struggling to pay the bills and get food on the table.

“It’s heartbreaking enough having to ask for it in the first place – I’d much rather still have Dan here and struggle with his illness,” says Sarah from her home in Leighton Buzzard. “But it’s almost like I have to beg for it now. It’s degrading. I’ve got three kids and they expect me to bring them up on thin air.”

Dan playing with Albie, Charlie and Scarlett
Dan playing with Albie, Charlie and Scarlett (Sarah Hales)

Sarah had believed she would receive bereavement support payment, which would act as a replacement for Dan’s sickness benefits, but a letter from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) stated that she was not eligible because her husband, who worked as a bricklayer, had not paid enough national insurance contributions.

An overhaul of the bereavement benefits system in April 2017 means married couples and civil partners now receive a benefit called bereavement support payment (BSP), which pays an initial lump sum of up to £3,500 and then monthly payments of up to £350 for 18 months.

But under the new system, the deceased has to have paid around six months of national insurance contributions for their surviving partner to be eligible – which can be a problem for young adults like Dan who, through no fault of their own, have not had enough time to build up entitlement before they died.

Sarah with Dan whilst he was in the hospice
Sarah with Dan whilst he was in the hospice (Sarah Hales)

When asked about Sarah’s case, the DWP said she was eligible for “further support” through the wider welfare system. But she says the housing benefit, child tax credits and income support she recieves only provide her with around £190 a week.

“We’re £1,000 down a month without his benefits. And that’s got to cover food, bills, and everything else,” says Sarah. “I’m more or less housebound – that’s what it feels like. I do the school runs, do my food shop on a Wednesday afternoon – and that’s my money gone with the bills each week.

“It’s gone. There’s nothing left to get the kids new clothes. I’ve got two toddlers and they grow quickly. You either make sure they’ve got clothes that fit them and go without food, or you get food and go out with clothes that are two sizes too small.

“Each week I’m having to count up the pennies. I think, if I get this, then we’ll have this left, but if I cut that out from the shop I’ll have this much left for this. I can’t even take the kids out for the day. I can’t even treat them to a McDonald’s to take their minds off everything. We are more or less stuck in the house.”

Widowed and Young (WAY), a charity providing support for people aged 50 or under whose partners have died, which has been calling on the government to urgently review the changes to bereavement support, says Sarah’s is the first case it has come across where a claimant has been denied payment on the grounds of national insurance contributions.

“We are dismayed that there continues to be such a blatant lack of support and compassion for families at a time when they are struggling with their grief as well as their finances,” says campaign spokesperson Georgia Elms. “This is another reason why the new bereavement support system, introduced in April 2017, is not fit for purpose.”

Due to the financial instability her young family was forced into following her husband’s death, Sarah says she has not yet had the opportunity to grieve, and that this is having a direct impact on her bereaved children.

She is appealing the DWP’s decision but the process is likely to take several months, and she feels like she has had to “fight for everything” in what is already an “awful situation”.

Their last family picture together for Christmas, in 2017
Their last family picture together for Christmas, in 2017 (Sarah Hales)

“After Dan died I drove home, I packed his room up. I was eerily calm. I think I was in shock,” she explains. “Nothing’s been straightforward. I’m trying to make sure the kids are okay. It adds to an already awful situation, more upset and stress and sleepless nights.

“Part of me doesn’t want to start grieving because I know that if I start I won’t stop. It’s not easy watching your 28-year-old husband literally disappear in front of you.”

A DWP spokesperson said: “People are entitled to the full payment of Bereavement Support Payment if their late spouse or civil partner has paid around six months’ national insurance contributions.

“There is further support available through the wider welfare system and we continue to spend around £90bn a year on working-age benefits, including for those on low incomes.”

You can donate to help Sarah and her children here

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