In a landmark ruling the Supreme Court has decided that a woman should be allowed to receive a ‘survivor’s pension’ despite not being married to her deceased partner.
Denise Brewster, 42, had lived with her partner Lenny McMullan for 10 years and owned a home with him. They got engaged just two days before Mr McMullan died suddenly in 2009.
Mr McMullan had worked for Translink, Northern Ireland’s public transport service, for 15 years and had been paying into the Local Government Pension Scheme.
Under the scheme’s rules a spouse is automatically entitled to a survivor’s pension if their partner dies and they were married. Unmarried partners can only claim the pension if they have signed a form opting into the scheme.
Computer says no
[SPOTLIGHT] The couple had not filled out the form so Ms Brewster was denied the survivor’s pension.
Survivor’s pensions are designed to help people minimise the financial impact of a lost income when a partner dies.
Ms Brewster and her legal team challenged the decision and took their fight through the courts before the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that she was entitled to receive pension payments.
“Denying bereaved cohabitees access to survivor pensions causes huge distress and financial hardship,” said Ms Brewster’s solicitor, Gareth Mitchell, of Deighton Pierce Glynn. “Now that around one in six families in the UK are cohabiting families, reform is long overdue.
“The decision has significant implications for millions of cohabitees in relation to pension benefits. It also lays down the approach to be adopted when considering complaints of discrimination on the grounds of marital status in other areas.”
'Breach of human rights'
The court ruled that the opt-in rule for unmarried partner’s was a breach of human rights as it was unlawful to have a 'difference in treatment between a long-standing cohabitant and a married or civil partner of a scheme member’.
“This is a very welcome ruling. It is totally unacceptable for cohabiting couples to be treated as second class citizens,” says Steve Webb, director of policy at Royal London.
“With more than six million people living together as couples and the numbers rising every year, this is an issue that needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.
"We need pension scheme rules which reflect the world we live in today, and not the world of 50 years ago.”
Impact of the ruling
It is now believed the ruling could help millions of other people who live with, but are not married to, their partners.
“The discrimination under the Human Rights Act identified by the Supreme Court means that wherever similar provisions appear in public sector schemes they are likely to be unenforceable and we expect them all to be removed,” says Mitchell.
“While the Human Rights Act does not bite on private sector schemes, members of those schemes will expect their pension scheme providers to follow suit and to operate schemes which do not discriminate unfairly on grounds of marital status.”
Rayner Grice, a partner specialising in Family Law with national law firm Clarke Willmott LLP, commented: “It is hoped that the Supreme Court’s decision should prompt the Government to move more proactively in modernising the law for cohabiting couples, who are currently the fastest-growing family type in the UK, currently numbering some 3.3 million.
“Pension is a key area of concern, and [yesterday's] decision may well lead to pension schemes altering their policies to ensure that on death there is protection for the surviving partner."