After spending two years clearing debt they racked up when their premature son almost died, a Napier couple was devastated to be hit with a bill from Inland Revenue that has shattered their dreams of saving for a house.
Money was the last thing on Christopher van de Laak’s mind when his partner Samara and son Oakley nearly died during childbirth.
But spending months driving between his hometown of Napier and Wellington Hospital while his son was in NICU took a financial toll, and the couple racked up significant credit card debt.
Determined to pay it back, they spent two years chipping away at it and finally, in January this year, they did.
But their celebrations were short-lived when days later a letter from Inland Revenue arrived informing them they had been overpaid nearly $3000 in Working for Families – which they were expected to pay back in just two weeks.
The letter was the final “kick in the guts” for the couple who had just got back on their feet after their son’s traumatic start to life.
When they found out they were pregnant with Oakley, they were thrilled and started planning for a natural and calm birth.
But that all changed on August 11, 2020 when they received the devastating news Oakley had intrauterine growth restriction, a condition that meant he was no longer growing in the womb.
Samara was rushed to Hawke’s Bay Hospital before being flown down to Wellington for an emergency caesarean.
On the morning of September 2, Oakley was born weighing just 676 grams and measuring 27 centimetres in length.
He was dangerously premature and doctors warned Christopher it would be “touch and go” for both him and Samara, who had pre-eclampsia, for the first few hours.
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Christopher spent the next day running between Samara and Oakley trying to make sure neither of them died while he was away.
“I was literally running between NICU and recovery every hour… back and forth, back and forth, back and forth trying to figure out who [I should be] spending the most amount of time with,” he told Newshub.
“That was a bit of a scary moment on the birth side of things. It was 18 hours of no sleep and it was pretty hard on the both of us.”
For the next few weeks at least one parent was glued to Oakley’s side at all times, in case he stopped breathing.
The emotion of the day is still raw for Christopher who started choking up while recalling his son’s birth.
Thankfully both Oakley and Samara pulled through but the relief was tainted when Christopher had to go back to work.
Oakley was still in NICU in Wellington which meant Christopher was regularly making the four-hour drive back to Napier for work.
While financial support was available for the travel costs, being away from home for months was stressful and with so much on their hands, it was easy for them to get into debt.
But the debt didn’t matter when after 14 weeks they got to take Oakley home and start their life with him.
They immediately started paying off their credit cards and saving – with the hopes of one day buying a home.
But this hope was dashed when the letter from Inland Revenue arrived. In the letter, which was a review of the 2022 tax year, Christopher and Samara were informed: “Our records show you have been overpaid so you have to repay $2998.37 by 07-Feb-2023. This amount includes penalties and interest, if any apply.”
The letter was dated May 22, 2022 but Christopher said he only got it on January 19 this year.
The bill was particularly frustrating for Christopher because Inland Revenue had regularly reviewed their Working for Families payments when their income changed – so he assumed they were getting it right.
Letters seen by Newshub show regular reviews of the family’s income and changes in their entitlements dating back to the start of 2022.
“It’s a kick in the guts, it really is because I’m trying my best,” Christopher said. “I work 40, 50, 60 hour weeks to try and keep a roof over my family’s head and the cost of rent and the cost of food is what it is, but now I’ve got to figure out how to pay this money back. I don’t want to be in debt for years.”
To make matters worse they were expected to pay it back in two weeks, something which was completely impossible. But getting someone on the phone to explain that also proved difficult.
Christopher said Inland Revenue needs to take greater care to ensure it’s not putting vulnerable families into debt and if it does because of its own miscalculation, it should waive the costs.
“These are accountants. They need to be a little bit more onto it because this is not money that is just willy-nilly. That money actually physically did help us through with our little one because we had a lot more on our plates with him.”
A spokesperson for Working for Families told Newshub they can’t comment on individual cases, even with a privacy waiver because it is governed by the Tax Administration Act which prevents it from discussing an individual’s private tax affairs.
The spokesperson said for Inland Revenue “secrecy and the TAA provisions trump a privacy waiver”.
The spokesperson said in general it’s important for people to keep Inland Revenue updated about any changes to income, relationship status or a child’s care arrangement.
They said this is the most common cause of Working for Families debt but if Inland Revenue does make a mistake it “endeavours to contact customers directly”.
They said Inland Revenue works closely with people who have debt and often “intervene early with a range of options to help them meet their obligations”.
“Customers should contact us early to discuss any issues they might have with tax debt so that we can help them work through these. “
Christopher isn’t the only person who has found himself in this situation though. There are currently 71,693 people with active repayment plans in place with Inland Revenue, 1707 of which relate to Working for Families debt.
Child Poverty Action Group’s Susan St John has been calling for changes to Working for Families for some time. St John said the current system isn’t fit for purpose and people shouldn’t be put in debt by the Government.
St John said Inland Revenue is supposed to adjust payments in real-time so overpayments don’t occur but that clearly that isn’t happening.
She said the current system is far “too complicated” and Inland Revenue is often rude and confrontational to people who get into debt.
The bill couldn’t have come at a worse time for Christopher though, who said his family is barely managing to keep their heads above water with the ever-increasing cost of living.
“It’s not even funny at the moment – it’s just Groundhog day. We are just getting from one day to the next or one paycheque to the next paycheque. The cost of living is definitely not pleasant, that is for sure.”
He said New Zealanders should feel confident their Working for Families will be worked out correctly – and they won’t be lumped with surprise debt.
And he wants Inland Revenue to acknowledge the real-world impacts debt can have on people. But he has a message for anyone else receiving Working for Families – check everything because if you don’t you might end up in debt you had no idea about.