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Pension Rights, Public Sector and Cohabiting Couples
- AuthorJoanne Jones
Changing trends in family and living arrangements in the UK have meant there has been a shift away from the traditional ‘nuclear family’. According to the office of National Statistics, cohabiting couple families were the fastest growing family type between 1996 and 2016 - more than doubling from 1.5 million to 3.3 million families.
Despite this, unmarried couples are treated differently to married couples in many respects, having fewer rights by simply living together and not being married. However, a recent judgement from the Supreme Court is likely to improve the pension rights of co-habiting couples in the public sector.
Although they never married, Denise Brewster and Lenny McMullan were long term partners – they were what many refer to as “common Law Spouses”. They had cohabited in the house they owned jointly for 10 years, and were actually engaged to be married, when Lenny died suddenly on Boxing Day 2009, aged 43.
He had been employed by the Northern Ireland public transport service for 15 years, paying into an occupational pension scheme throughout this time. Had the couple been married, Denise would have automatically received a share of his pension. For cohabitees, however, the rules are different and eligibility rests on the survivor being nominated on a form. Sadly no such form had been signed in favour of his partner before Lenny passed away.
Denise was denied payments from the pension, which she argued amounted to “serious discrimination” and a breach of her human rights. The case was initially heard by the High Court in Northern Ireland, where she was successful. However, the judgement was overturned by Northern Ireland’s Court of Appeal.
The matter was finally resolved by the UK’s Supreme Court, where it was ruled that Denise Brewster was entitled to receive payments from the pension scheme. The Supreme Court is the final court of appeal in the UK for civil cases, and for criminal cases from England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It hears cases of the greatest public or constitutional importance affecting the whole population
“This is an interesting case as it shows that everybody, including the Courts, recognise the different types of family units in today’s society,” said solicitor Joanne Jones.
“People demonstrate commitment in many ways and marriage is not the only measure of this and people should not be automatically penalised for deciding against marriage.”
Despite changes being made to the local government scheme in England and Wales, the decision of the Supreme Court could have an impact on public sector workers who are co-habiting.
Similarly, numerous other schemes may be affected, hopefully resulting in unmarried couples receiving the survivors’ allowance automatically. However, it is likely that proof of financial interdependency and a significant period of cohabitation would be required.
“Surely the point of allowing surviving spouses to receive benefit from the deceased’s pension is to ensure that they do not suffer financially as a result of their Partners death. Most long-term couples, married or otherwise, will have committed to support one another in every way, including financially,” added Joanne.
“It is right that these benefits are transferred to the survivor to prevent hardship. Why should the position be different simply because a couple choose not to marry?”