Pension Rights For Unmarried Couples

Unmarried woman wins right to survivor’s pension


The number of couples opting to cohabit without getting married has been steadily on the rise for many years, with the Office of National Statistics (ONS) recently finding that there are now 3.3 million cohabiting couple families - a figure which is more than double that of a decade ago.


But, despite this cultural shift, the legal protections afforded to cohabitees are still lagging behind those enjoyed by married couples or civil partners. People who have lived together as partners for many years, without actually getting married, are particularly vulnerable due to the failure of legislation to recognise their relationship. For example, inheritance tax and intestacy rules, leave cohabitees potentially far worse off compared to their married counterparts.


A recent legal ruling has reduced these differences slightly, at least in regards to public sector pensions. In February 2017 the Supreme Court ruled that Denise Brewster should be allowed access to her deceased partner’s local government pension scheme, after living with him for 10 years. She had previously been denied access on the basis that her partner did not complete a ‘nomination form’ - something which was necessary for co-habitees but not for married couples or civil partners.


Discrimination and breach of human rights


Ms Brewster had originally won her case in the High Court in Northern Ireland, which found that the requirement of a nomination form specifically for non-married couples (i.e. when it was not required for married partners) was discriminatory and incompatible with the European Convention of Human Rights. This ruling was overturned by the Court of Appeal. The case ended up in the Supreme Court, which upheld the High Court decision; the refusal of the pension scheme to award Ms Brewster a survivor’s pension constituted unlawful discrimination on grounds of marital status. Although this ruling does not directly impact other public or private sector pension schemes, it has now brought Northern Ireland in line with local government schemes for England, Wales and Scotland.


What does this judgment mean for cohabitees?


The Supreme Court decision does not have any immediate significance outside Northern Ireland. However, it could have potential implications for other types of public sector pension schemes (e.g. NHS or civil service). The outcome also indicates that the law is gradually moving in a direction which reflects the cultural changes within the modern family. Commenting, former pensions minister Sir Steve Webb said “It is totally unacceptable for cohabiting couples to be treated as second-class citizens. With more than 6 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.”


While the law is struggling to catch up with the reality of modern families, it’s vital that you secure the interests of your own family unit - particularly if you are not married or in a civil partnership - by ensuring that properly drafted wills and other documentation are in place. To find out more, get in touch with the Family Law and Private Client teams at W H Matthews & Co.