An unwelcome surprise

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An unwelcome surprise

Sixty-one-year-old Kim Ok-kyu left her abusive husband and moved in with her children 16 years ago. It took her a decade, but she finally divorced him in 2004. It was the end of a long nightmare, she thought.

Then her pension checks started arriving, and she discovered just how wrong she was.

In January 2009, Kim retired and began to receive monthly benefits of 338,000 won ($302). In May, the checks suddenly shrank to 204,600 won. Since Kim had spent 14 years contributing to the retirement system and was looking forward to a comfortable old age, she was certain the National Pension Service had made a mistake.

It hadn’t. More than a third of her pension - 134,200 a month - is being paid to her ex-husband.

“My ex-husband punched me in the face, he beat me up with anything he found in his hands,” sobbed Kim, who eked out a living cleaning buildings. “I have scars on my head because he beat me with a metal stand.

“I lived all my life looking after my children and now I feel like everything’s falling down because part of my pension goes to him.”

Kim isn’t alone in her dilemma. As the number of divorcing elderly couples continues to rise, disputes on splitting pensions rise with them. The state-run pension institute said 3,625 elders sought to split their former spouse’s pension in February, and the number is growing by 100 requests every month.

Take the case of Choi, 66, who’d been receiving 260,000 won in pension benefits every month, until October 2008, when his benefits were cut nearly in half. It was then he learned that his 63-year-old ex-wife, Hwang, had asked the NPS to split his pension - even though they’d divorced 10 years earlier, when she took her young son to study abroad and began dating a British professor.

“I can hardly sleep because I’m the victim of the divorce and not her,” Choi said angrily.

Like Kim, Choi filed a grievance to NPS. And like Kim’s, his request was rejected.

Couples expect to split their assets if they divorce. But not all divorces address pension rights - and in fact they don’t have to. Upon receiving a request to share in pension benefits, the NPS considers the duration of the marriage and the time the contributor had been paying into the system. It does not take into consideration the reasons for the divorce.

It’s not a problem that is expected to go away. While divorce among all couples is declining - in 2008, 116,500 cases were filed, a slide of 7.5 percent from the previous year’s figure and in line with a five-year downtrend, according to Statistics Korea - the number of senior citizens seeking divorce is on the rise, and with them the number of disputes about pensions.

In 2008, 16,020 men and 8,501 women filed for divorce when they were older than 55 - an increase of 2.3 times for men and 3.1 times for women compared to figures from 10 years earlier. The NPS said that while most people who seek to split pensions are between 60 and 64 years old, 332 people over the age of 70 are in the same situation.

The policy was introduced at the urging of women’s advocacy groups, “because men are usually the breadwinners in Korean families and when couples split, a woman loses her major source of income,” according to attorney Kim Sam-hwa.

Once the request is made, the division goes strictly by the numbers. Kim Yun-jeong, a judge at Seoul Family Court, said if both partners in the marriage contributed to the NPS system, the pension benefits are split 50-50. If only one person subscribed, the split is 60 percent to the subscriber and 40 percent to the ex-spouse.

The split policy exists only for national pensions, and does not apply to pension benefits for public service workers, military officials and private school workers.

By Shin Sung-sik, Kim Mi-ju []

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