"Plain question and plain answer make the shortest road out of most perplexities."

Mark Twain

Why is the legislation unfair?

People contribute to their pension plans expecting to receive benefits equal to others making the same contributions. However, only contributors who marry prior to retiring, or before reaching age 60, are eligible to provide a pension for a surviving spouse.  Those who choose to marry after retirement, or after age 60, are not. 

The government offers optional coverage to contributors who marry later. However, this "option" means the retiree must pay a huge penalty to have the same benefit as someone who simply married earlier.

The penalty to provide for this spouse is a reduced pension, and the reduction can be as high as a third to a half of the pension.  

Those who accept the huge reduction in their pensions, which could last several years, might have their spouse predecease them. In that case the government will have taken tens of thousands of dollars from the retiree without providing a single benefit.

Do you have details on the option to purchase a spousal pension?

Yes. The reduction in the retiree’s pension is so large that, in the majority of cases, it is unaffordable.   

A good example is Navy Commander Terry who was asked to relinquish $903 per month of his $2,250 pension forever in order to provide a $761 survivor pension for his wife.  

This decorated veteran wrote to the Honourable Peter MacKay, then Minister of National Defence, to appeal his situation.  

In his response, Minister MacKay described the government’s policy as: “….an appropriate balance between desired benefits and affordability.”

How many people are affected?

In 2012 we conducted a survey of retirees in one pension plan to get actual family status data and, while there were variations among provinces, the national average was 4.19%. The total number affected will vary from plan to plan. However, using the national average, a plan with 10,000 retirees would have 419 couples in this situation.

And, 419 couples per 10,000 retirees assumes the “worst case” scenario that every single couple now in this position will eventually require a spousal survivor benefit. That is, of course, not the case because some spouses will predecease the retiree.

Why are you expending this effort for a small group?

A wrong does not cease to be a wrong because only a few are affected.  Even one surviving spouse left destitute is one too many.

Are you fighting for all marital arrangements?

Yes.  We use the term "marriage" in all our documents and other communications as a catch-all to include common-law relationships as well as same-sex marriages.

Are there any related dimensions to this issue?

Yes. To begin, this is also a caregiver issue and a women's issue.

A National Profile of Caregivers in Canada survey produced for Health Canada found caregivers 65 and older tend to be looking after a spouse or partner. That report also stated: "Informal caregivers are most often family members, most often spouses, and most often women."  

A Royal Bank Retirement Research Centre poll asked: "Who would you be most likely to turn to for caregiving if the need arose in your life?" and 57% answered that it would be their spouse.  

Caregiving can be a huge and demanding challenge. According to RBC Retirement Research, caregiving tasks typically span several years and the level of care needed is likely to escalate over time, as is the burden on the caregiver.  

It is unconscionable that the reward for some caregivers, when their ailing partners die, is that they are denied a pension.

Depriving spouses of pensions is also a health issue.  One of our partners, the Canadian Nurses Association, who advance the practice and profession of nursing to improve health outcomes, said it best:

"From our perspective this issue is one of income inequality, since a strong, significant correlation exists between income and health.

Low-income individuals have significantly higher rates of mortality and morbidity, regardless of how income is measured.  In addition, chronic disease and health-care use are more prevalent in low-income populations.  Poverty also has a compounding effect on health by exacerbating other social determinants of health such as housing, food security and social exclusion."

Have others supported a change to this legislation? 

Yes, there have been many supporters including members of government.

"It is recognized that this legislation does not affect a large number of people and that it would not involve significant taxpayer dollars to resolve." 

Hon. H. Guergis (then MLA for Simcoe Gray) June 2005

"Many retired members have contacted me expressing their dissatisfaction with this aspect of pension legislation, and I continue to be a proponent for change to eliminate this restriction." 

Hon. Gordon T. O'Connor (then Minister of National Defence) May 2007

“….our top priority in the pension area will be to seek a resolution to the marriage after 60 issue by pursuing a proactive change to the existing legislation that limits the extension of survivor benefits to members’ spouses acquired before the age of 60.” 

Major General W. Semianiw (then Chief Military Personnel) September 2007

“The old legislation is certainly a product of foregone times.” “Many who marry after age 60 can look forward to decades of happiness together. It is for this reason that the surviving spouse of a veteran should be entitled to his or her pension, regardless of the age at which they wed.” 

Senator Joseph A. Day 2011  

“It’s an archaic law and it needs to stop.”

P. Stoffer NDP MP (sponsor of Private Member's Bill C-243) 2011

Will this mean that the pension systems might be paying for two spouses?  What will happen where there has been a divorce?

We have received a number of questions with variations on the divorce theme.  The answers to those questions are not for us to determine.  At the point legislation is changed, the government will establish the rules for various situations.  Divorce is only one example, and the Government already has legislation that deals with apportionment issues.

What happens if a retiree marries a much younger person? Could a surviving spouse collect a full survivor's pension for a long time – like 40 or 50 years?

No, and that is not our intention. Indeed, such a situation would simply validate the description of the legislation as a "gold digger clause".

It is too early to say what the controls might be but there are methods, including some that already exist, to restrict the pension payouts by reducing them in relation to the age difference between the retiree and the Marriage After Retirement or Marriage After 60 spouse. 

Most defined benefit pension plans already have a provision that begins reducing a spousal pension when there is an age difference of 20 years. The reduction becomes greater as the age difference increases.

At a time when pension plans are under fire, why are you seeking an enhancement?

This is not about seeking a pension enhancement; it is about correcting an unfair law. We want to make pension plans fair and impartial by changing archaic legislation that makes some couples more equal than others. 

It is not unusual that a government corrects unjust legislation and, by correcting it, creates a cost. That happened in 1999 when the government extended payment of survivor benefits to same-sex spouses. 

According to the Treasury Board, government liabilities required a one-time payment of $115 million. Additionally, the ongoing costs of pensionable payroll increased by one third of one percent (0.03%).

Alliance MP Philip Mayfield described this payroll increase as, “….not large, but rather small, amounting to a quarter of one per cent or approximately $5 million a year.” (Hansard April 22, 1999)