A case study into how the UK benefits system punishes the poor, even after death…

My mother died, aged 79, in December 2021, and I have still not been able to distribute the proceeds of her will.

This is perhaps not unusual when people die leaving a complex estate, but my mother did not have a messy will or lots of difficult assets – she had a small amounts of savings in several accounts (two of which she seems to have forgotten about) and a semi-detatched house full of vast amounts of worthless things collected over a long life time.

She had spent much of her adult life on disability benefits after all, having suffered from chronic mental health problems and having lived a life of poverty and extreme self-denial.

Furthermore, there were only two main beneficiaries from her will, myself and my late sister.

As the only executor charged with the ‘sadministration’ of her last will and testament, the greatest challenge was clearing out the aforementoined lifetime of hoarding and accummulation in her house, or at least I thought this to be the case. What actually happened was that after one of the hardest weeks of my life, filling skip after skip and making innumerable trips to charity shops, we returned to Scotland to find a letter waiting for us from the benefits agency.

It turns out that the benefits agency check the probate records of anyone who dies whilst on benefits. My mother had a top-up of ‘pension credit’ as well as her state pension, which amounted to a few extra pounds a week, and because this entitlement tapers off dependent on the amount of savings someone has, the agency noted that she had more savings than the threshold and so started an ‘investigation’.

To understand how this came about, you need to understand something of the circumstances of my mother’s life. I mentioned some of this previously in this post, but suffice it to say that she never fully escaped the extreme poverty and emotional neglect of her childhood. She never felt safe or worthy. One of the ways she sought to make the world more predictable was by hoarding and stockpilingv- mostly food, but also shoes and clothing. She also had a relationship with money that was entirely dysfunctional, in that she scrimped and saved every single penny, way beyond what was reasonable, even for people on benefits. For example, her daily food intake was almost all gathered from the past-sell-by-date section of supermarkets, and she spent much of her later leisure time in charity shops.

This ability to make her tiny income stretch out started early, in that she had saved and borrowed enough money to purchase her house (the one I was born in and the one I had to sell after her death) long before her short marriage to my father. She did this by working long hours at various jobs – a butchers, various factories, Boots chemist (who sacked her when she married as they did not employ married women) and a bread delivery service.

She then brought up two children as a single mother on benefits. She passed on her fear to my sister and I, but at the same time we never went without anything that mattered. Even if our comparative povery marked us out as less-than, it was not the poverty of the food bank or the begging bowl.

It was not the poverty she grew up with.

Photo by Anthony : ) on Pexels.com

But back to the money thing. For most of her life, my mother did everything by cash. She withdrew her benefits (and later her pension) then paid all her bills ‘over the counter’. She lived in fear of NOT paying her bills – due to some encounters with bailiffs in the wake of her marriage ending – so was very careful to always be in credit if at all possible with all her utility bills.

For the same reason, she always tried to have some kind of emergency ‘nest egg’, in the form of a stash of cash hidden somewhere around the house. After all, the roof may need to be mended or the cooker could break, and these sorts of things were the greatest fears of my mother’s life (and being found out as the child of unwed parents, but that is a story for another time.)

Towards the end of her life, due to the slightly more generous income of a state pention and dissability living allowance, my mother was unable to increase her lifelong committment to extreme penny-pinching, so the cash she was accummulating in her house started to increase. By then my sister, who was geographically much closer to my mother and more involved in her day-to-day life, was very unwell and subsequently died, so I was trying to support my increasingly infirm and very eccentric mother from distance.

I should paint a picture of just HOW eccentric she was for those who did not know her. The effect of her mental health problems and isolation had been the adoption of a number of coping strategies that she held on to fiercely – extreme religion, an addiction to exercise that to others seemed remarkable and ideas about food and central heating that left medical people aghast. What seemed extreme was her normal, for example in terms of the distances she walked, pushing a disability trolley, bent over by arthritis. She lived in a home with almost no heating and until the last year or so of her life, no hot water. She cooked a limited number of spartan meals, often using ingredients that anyone else would have condemned as unfit for humans. The problem was that as she became more infirm, she was unable to let go any of her coping skills or eccentric routines, with some small exception – one was was slightly more willing to let me make some decisions on her behalf.

The other was that she became very dependent on the care and support offer to her by a remarkable neighbour called Sam. I will remain grateful to Sam for ever – she is one of the reasons that humanity still has a future. Same cooked, cleaned and watched over my mother when my daily phone calls and increasingly frantic visits seemed woefully inadequate.

But as I said, her normal was other people’s extreme. Those of us who knew her best had to come to terms with this.

Then, on one of my visits down from Scotland to try to help her sort out some of her affairs, I discovered nineteen thousand pounds in cash. Around the same time, the way my mother had always withdrawn her pension – through a Post Office card account – had come to an end because these accounts were all suspended. This meant that she needed to open her first ever current account. After numerous complications, this is what we did, with me as an administrator on her account so I could set up direct debits and make other payments as necessary. This enabled me to get some repairs done on her house, including installing a water heater.

My mother was very keen for me to keep the nineteen thousand pounds, but I refused to do this, insttead putting it in to her new current acount. You may think me fool for doing this, given the trouble it has caused since, but at the end of the day, I know I did the right thing. I have seen too much dodgy family practices about money in my former life as a social worker, often resulting in adult protection invesigations. I wanted to keep everything correct and straightforward.

It is important to remember that this money was all paid out to my mother as per her entitlements. Had she not lived the eccentric life of self denial, but spent the money on the things that others would have done – good food, taxis and busses, heating bills, new clothes etc- then she would never have accumulated this money. She had cash because she could not bring herself to break the fearful habits of her lifetime.

Having said that, I think my mother knew well that she was breaking the rules. At some point she had put some money in an ISA savings account. It was around ten thousand pounds. The threshold of savings that the benefits agency look at before they started to progressively reduce benefits was around eight thousand. In practice this meant that my mother would have lost a small amount of her ‘pension credit’ – which was less than ten pounds a week in total, so it would not have made much difference. She chose to ignore this.

I tried to talk to her about it a few times, but she always closed me down, so I chose to ignore it too, and regard it has ‘her business’. I still feel guilt and anxiety about this – as I said, I tried hard to do things properly. Perhaps I could have forced this issue, but there were so many more pressing issues at the time, as I stuggled to set up packages of care, deal with complaints about carers not showing up, and manage the constantly problematic interface with health care workers.

The end result is that my mother when my mother died, the level of savings she had – when we add together the money she had in different savings accounts and the cash I had placed in to her current account – was above the threshold for continued reciept of pension credit, which as I have already mentions was less than ten pounds per week. On reviewing the probate information I submitted, the benefits agency now knew this and wanted it back. They had started an ‘investigation’.

My mother was being pursued beyond her grave for money that she had only lost entitlement to because she had not spent it quickly enough.

What happened next was a long series of seemingly unending information flows.

Many telephone calls.

Letters of explanation. Everything by post as the department involved do not do e-mail.

Bank statements were requested going back into the 1990’s. The bank only keep ten years of records, but even to access them as a third party means a whole process of submitting forms and documents and proofs of identity.

I send what is requested then they ask for something else. The letters they send me never arrive so I only discover they were sent when I ring to ask what is happening.

Then they same for post office records. Some of these accounts are now handled by JP Morgan – a massive accountancy firm – who have different processes, requiring aurhorised copies of identity documents.

Everything moves at glacial pace, and here we are still. The sadministration continues.

I have to add that in my dealings with the department within the benefits agency charged with this investigation, all staff have been pleasant, decent and as helpful has they could be.

On one level, rules are rules. If my mother was not entitled to this benefit, then she should not have been getting it. If we need to pay back her savings to cover what she should not have been paid then so be it. I have said all of these things and meant them.

But this is not the whole story. It feels as though the legacy left – both literally and figuartively – by this remarkable woman is being demeaned, much as she was when she was alive. A hard and lonely life is being followed by a grubby and unpleasant afterlife. The money that would come to me, my children and my sisters children is not huge, but it now feels worth much less than it was, no matter how much the benefits agency eventually reclaim.

There is another question here too about the different ways we deal with the wealthy and the poor in our society. Here is a test – do a simple internet search entitled ‘inheritence tax’. You will be deluged with advertisements for companies trying to help you avoid paying it. There is no hidden subterfuge here, the purpose of this activity – the avoidance of tax to be paid after the death of someone who is very wealthy – is shouted out loud, as if this is a social good. As if tax avoidance is good sense.

I am sure you get the contrast here. One involves those who have much giving more of it than they should to their own. The other involves those with very little being scrutinised and criminalised for taking more than they should.

Perhaps this is right. Perhaps this is the only legacy my mother in all her mess and eccentricity could ever leave. Hers was not an ordinary life so how could her death be ordinary?

All I know is that the impact of this process on my own life and my own grieving is more difficult than it is possible to describe. I find myself in the same place emotionally that I was aged 13, wearing home-made clothes to school and walking everywhere because we had no car. Back then, benefits were so much more generous than they are now, but still we felt ourselves to be less-than. We were those who were entitled only begrudgingly, and this feeling is hard to escape.

Even after death.

2 thoughts on “A case study into how the UK benefits system punishes the poor, even after death…

  1. Chris

    My Lord! The utter cruelty and heartlessness of Tory (& other Right wing Governments) never ceases.

    This was a devastating read. I had relatives (my Dad’s people) who, having grown up through the Depression, were pretty frugal but your mum took that to a whole other level. Generational trauma is a real,not that any of those MP’s in Westminster would ever acknowledge that.

    Australia has just concluded a Royal Commission into “Robodebt” which has exposed the previous Right wing Government and the public service blatant disregard for the humanity of those on welfare benefits. The scheme was always illegal,but took over 4 years before it was shut down. So, in light of that, your personal story continues that grinding down of “the undeserving poor”. The welfare state is dead, according to the Tories (apparently).

    I really hope and pray your situation is resolved soon and you and your sister’s kids get your inheritance. Your mum was an incredible woman, if just a bit maddeningly eccentric! But that was due to the circumstances of her grinding poverty.

    May God bless you and keep you,

    Rob! Rob Thomson

    PS We did briefly meet at Greenbelt in 2009, but I don’t expect you to remember me!

    • Hi Rob, thanks for the lovely comment… I do remember you! That old underserving poor thing won’t go away will it? The British welfare state post war was an attempt to do away with it but is only lasted a short while- although arguably I was one of the beneficiaries. Hope all is well with you down there, and that you are managing to keep the claws of the cutters away from your libraries!

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