FUKUOKA -- A 54-year-old woman who is raising an 18-year-old daughter in this southwestern Japan city was suddenly cut off from a child care allowance provided to single parent families with low income.
The child care allowance, which amounts to 43,160 yen (about $412) per month, was terminated all of a sudden in August 2020. It turned out that this was because her ex-husband -- with whom she separated over 20 years ago -- had registered himself as a resident of the woman's apartment without her knowledge. The Fukuoka Municipal Government, which suspected a case of common-law marriage, cut the allowance, and asked the woman to return the amount that was distributed after the resident registration. The Mainichi Shimbun delved deeper into this issue and what caused this to happen.
The woman had three sons -- now adults -- with her ex-husband, as well as an 18-year-old daughter with a late husband who passed away due to illness in 2011. She currently lives in an apartment with her 24-year-old son who works part time, and her daughter who goes to a vocational school that provides high school education. The family barely gets by as the mother pays the apartment's rent of around 70,000 yen (about $669) and other expenses with her salary of around 130,000 yen (about $1,242) she earns at a bento box meal shop, and the child care allowance she receives for raising her daughter. When the woman rented the apartment 12 years ago, she had her ex-husband sign the contract in his name, as she could not enter into the agreement as a single mother. However, she had lost touch with him from this point onward.
The woman heard her ex-husband's name for the first time in a long time in August last year. Local governments require child care allowance recipients to submit papers every year in August showing that there is no change in their income and that they do not have a partner, to check their living conditions.
The woman was given an unexpected piece of information after she submitted documentation to the ward office on Aug. 3. Staff told her that an adult man was registered as a resident of the same address as her apartment from December 2019. Having no idea who it could be, she asked who it was, leading the staff member to say the man's name. The woman responded that he was her ex-husband, and explained, "We don't live together. You can come to the apartment to see for yourself."
However, the woman was handed over a piece of paper that is filed when a person loses their qualification for receiving the child care allowance. The woman claims that she repeatedly insisted to the staff that she did not live with her ex-husband, but they would not listen. She had no choice but to start filling in the paper she was given. She did not know what to select for the reason of her lost qualification, and the staff member apparently told her to choose the column that read "common-law marriage."
"Even if I wasn't aware of it, I guess it can't be helped if his name is on the resident's certificate," the woman thought to herself as she reluctantly submitted the paper as she was told. Next, she was asked to return the amount paid to her between January last year -- the month following her ex-husband's resident registration -- and June, during which the latest payment was made, which totaled around 260,000 yen (about $2,483). The woman turned pale as she heard this, and told staff that she could not possibly pay such an amount. The staff member suggested that she make the payment in monthly installments of 7,000 yen (about $67). Unable to defy the orders, the woman affixed a seal onto the papers.
That night, the woman dug out her ex-husband's phone number and contacted him, and he admitted that he registered himself as a resident without her permission. Although the woman had obtained a copy of her resident's certificate last spring, she did not notice anything as her ex-husband had registered himself under a single-person household, separate from the woman's family.
Struggling to get by, the woman asked the owner of the bento shop she works at to pay her salary in advance. Although the woman suffered ill effects from menopause, she stopped getting examined at hospitals as her qualification for using her medical care certificate that aids health care expenses for single-parent families also became invalid. The shop owner, who was worried about the woman, brought her back to the ward office on Oct. 28. Although the woman insisted that she should qualify to receive the aid, municipal authorities asked her to submit documentation proving that she had not been living with her ex-husband, and no progress was made.
How does the Fukuoka Municipal Government view this series of events? The city responded to an inquiry by the Mainichi Shimbun through documentation, and said that "it is not a fact that the woman demanded an investigation and repeatedly refuted the presence of common-law marriage" when she submitted papers in August. Furthermore, the city brought up a manual for administrative measures surrounding the child care allowance by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, and claimed, "If the street address of individuals is the same on the resident's certificate, this becomes material used to judge that they share common living expenses, unless there is evidence that makes it clear that they do not share living expenses." The municipal government indicated that they believe there was no issue in the way they handled the woman's case.
However, regarding the manual, a representative of the welfare ministry explained in an inquiry that "it doesn't necessarily mean that presenting evidence is an absolute must."
The reporter also met with the woman's ex-husband to verify the woman's statement that she had not lived with him. The ex-husband, who had a construction-related job in the city of Fukuoka, faced financial difficulties and had stayed at his friends' houses or slept inside his car since a few years ago. His company collapsed in December 2019, and he was unable to use his health insurance. As the man has a preexisting heart condition and needed an address to apply for national health insurance, he came up with the idea of using the address of the woman's home where one of his sons lived. He said that he asked his son to retrieve the health insurance card for him once it was sent to the address. When asked whether he had lived in the woman's apartment, he answered, "No. I don't even know where she works."
The reporter also interviewed the son, who said, "My father came to collect mail when my mother wasn't around, but he has never entered into the room. I don't think my mother and father are in contact with each other." A friend of the ex-husband also said that during the summer of last year, they had him stay over "a few times for a period of one week each." This supported the ex-husband's explanation that he stayed over at friends' houses after registering himself as a resident of the woman's apartment.
The woman visited the ward office once more at the end of 2020, to submit the housing contract of the new residence rented by her ex-husband last October and to apply to receive the child care allowance again. Although municipal officials finally approved payment covering the following month onward, demand for returning past payments remains in place. While the woman placed blame on herself for writing the documents as she was told, she said, "It's a shock that the city thought I was a liar." She gathered the gas, water and phone bills for 2019 and 2020, and claimed, "had we started living together, the usage and fees should have increased but they actually decreased." Yet it is unclear whether this can be used as evidence that she had not been living with her ex-husband.
Local governments have recipients of child care allowances submit documentation to check their current living conditions in order to prevent them from continuously receiving aid even after they have entered into a de facto married relationship. Resident certificates are also material that can reveal the possible presence of a partner.
However, in 2015 the welfare ministry notified local governments to deal with cases where other parties are listed on resident certificates "without making mechanical decisions based on formal conditions, and instead make judgments after checking actual living conditions," while raising the instance of living with those of the opposite sex in share houses, and cases where former spouses do not move their resident certificate in order to pay mortgages following divorce, among other examples.
(Japanese original by Emi Aoki, Kyushu News Department)