Unmarried woman’s pension victory to affect many co-habiting couples

The case of a co-habiting woman, whose partner died, winning a legal battle for her ex-partner’s pension pot, is likely to improve the rights of unmarried couples in the public sector.

Equally, the victory is another wake-up call for the law to change to accommodate co-habiting couples, as our legal system still plays catch up to reflect life in 2017.

Changes in the law that progress to adapt to a changing world are welcome, and this is one such case.

Denise Brewster, aged 42, had been denied payments from her partner, Lenny McMullan’s occupational pension, but she argued successfully that this amounted to discrimination.

She has won her case at the Supreme Court, the highest in the land, and this could result in pension schemes having to reconsider their rules.

The couple from Coleraine, in Northern Ireland lived together for 10 years and owned their own home.

After winning the case, Ms Brewster said that, in particular, cohabiting parents – were being “thrust into hardship,” as a result of losing a partner, their income or their pension.

Her partner died suddenly in 2009, aged 43, and at the time of his death he had worked for the Northern Ireland public transport service, Translink, for 15 years, paying into an occupational pension scheme.

If the couple had been married Ms Brewster would have automatically shared the pension that he had built up.

However, co-habiting partners were only eligible for survivor’s allowances in the same way, but only if she had been nominated on a form, which had accidentally not been completed.

At Dale and Newbery we believe this legal victory could benefit large numbers of public sector workers all over the UK.

Ms Brewster had argued that the system of nomination forms discriminated against her and had breached her human rights.

She initially won her case in the High Court in Northern Ireland, but the decision was then overturned in the Court of Appeal in Northern Ireland, before the case headed to the UK Supreme Court for a final decision.

Co-habiting couples working in the public sector ,including NHS staff, teachers, civil servants and police should take note of this case.

Other public sector schemes could also change their rules so co-habiting couples automatically benefit from survivor’s pensions without being opted in. However, they would still have to prove that, as a couple, they had been together for two years and were financially interdependent.

From our legal standpoint, it is still unclear whether this will lead to any retrospective change in the rules.

It was interesting that former Pensions Minister, Steve Webb echoed our views saying that the rules or married and unmarried couples across the pensions system should be the same.

“With every passing year you have more people living together and pension practice needs to reflect the world we live in and not the world of 50 years ago.”

Ms Brewster’s victory will have far reaching consequences. At Dale and Newbery, we believe that if this case brings the law into the modern age, where family structures are more complex, this is welcome and long overdue progress.

Life can be complex for co-habiting couples and they need all the legal support they can get. If you are co-habiting and wish to know more about this case or the unique legal effects upon your situation, please contact us at Dale and Newbery today on 01784 464491.

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