Alisha’s story: separated under one roof

Alisha is on the Disability Support Pension (DSP) and receives Family Tax Benefit (FTB). She also has significant consumer debt and, like so many on a low income, has struggled to find affordable accommodation. As a result, she shares a house with her ex-partner, while searching for a rental.

Centrelink made the decision that Alisha and her ex-partner were a member of a couple. This meant her rate of both Disability Support Pension and Family Tax Benefit were reduced from the single rate of payment to the couple rate, and her ex-partner’s income and assets affected her rate of payment.

In fact, Alisha and her ex-partner were not a couple. They were, however, living under the one roof.

Ex-partners continuing to live together in the same house is becoming increasingly common, and SSRV is sometimes contacted by people who are experiencing Centrelink issues because of this.

Victoria is currently experiencing a rental crisis which is seeing many people unable to afford to rent, and long waiting periods to access social and government housing. This means that ex-partners may need to continue living with one another after separation, this is often considered as ‘separated under one roof’.

If Centrelink decides an individual is a member of a couple, it is assumed they are pooling resources and sharing income. The assets and income of a partner are considered by Centrelink when determining eligibility for payments, and also results in a partnered rate of payment, which is lower than the single rate.

Centrelink is guided by five factors for consideration when making ‘member of a couple’ determinations, and can sometimes incorrectly classify people as being partnered. SSRV is able to provide legal advice on this point, and has successfully supported individuals to appeal these decisions.

When Centrelink decided that Alisha and her ex-partner were a member of a couple, Alisha sought an internal review by an Authorised Review Officer. The review officer affirmed the decision and found she was a member of a couple. Alisha lodged an appeal to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (Tribunal). Alisha approached SSRV looking for advice and representation at the hearing date. She was very stressed as her disability meant she could not read the documents sent to her by Centrelink and the Tribunal, and her support workers were unsure how best to assist her.

The SSRV lawyer worked with Alisha to draft her statement and submissions for the hearing. SSRV contacted five of Alisha’s support workers and sought letters of support for the hearing. An SSRV lawyer attended the hearing with Alisha and provided oral submissions on her behalf. 

In the meantime, Alisha’s housing situation became worse, and she was forced to move into a caravan. Social workers intervened and moved Alisha in to an emergency motel where she lived with her children. The SSRV lawyer supported Alisha by working with her social worker, applying for the Centrelink Fleeing Family Violence Crisis Payment, and updating Centrelink as Alisha changed addresses multiple times.

Alisha was successful at the Tribunal hearing and was found to be single for the purposes of social security law. Alisha was granted $14,000 in back payments. Alisha’s application for government housing was also successful, and she and her children moved into stable long-term accommodation.

Integrated service delivery

Despite the win, Alisha still had significant personal debt, which was causing her financial hardship and stress.

The SSRV lawyer referred Alisha to the SSRV financial counsellor to create a plan for how to use the $14,000 of back payment to pay off some of the consumer debt and save a portion of the money for basics and essentials for her new government housing.

SSRV recognises that individuals who are unable to access adequate income support through Centrelink often have issues relating to housing stability, financial stability, safety, health and general welfare. For this reason, it is a priority for SSRV to deliver integrated services.

Alisha’s story is an example of how integrated services deliver holistic care to clients to achieve better outcomes.

Alisha was incredibly grateful for the assistance provided to her. She said she had found her experiences with Centrelink overwhelmingly stressful and often left her in tears because she did not understand what they wanted from her. Now, she says, she can see a pathway forward.

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