Supreme Court rules unmarried woman is entitled to her late-partner’s pension.

A woman denied access to her late partner’s work pension because they were not married has been told by the UK’s highest court that she is entitled to the payments. The Supreme Court ruling extends the rights of millions of unmarried co-habitees and could have implications for all pension schemes.

Denise Brewster, from Coleraine, Northern Ireland, had been denied payments from her late partner’s occupational public sector pension, but took her case to the Supreme Court arguing she was a victim of discrimination.

Ms Brewster and her late partner, Lenny McMullan, lived together for 10 years and owned their own home. Unfortunately, Mr McMullan died suddenly during Christmas 2009 – two days after they got engaged. Mr McMullan had worked for Translink, Northern Ireland’s public transport services provider, for 15 years and was paying into the local government pension scheme.

Had the couple been married; Ms Brewster would have automatically qualified for a widow’s pension. However, under the rules of the scheme, unmarried partners needed to be nominated by the pension holder in order to receive payments. As a cohabitee, Ms Brewster would have been entitled to survivor’s allowances, but as she had not been nominated; she was not entitled to a ‘survivor’s pension’.

Ms Brewster successfully challenged that decision in the High Court in Northern Ireland, where a judge ruled that it was “irrational and disproportionate to impose a disqualifying hurdle of this kind”. However, the Court of Appeal subsequently overturned that decision. Ms Brewster then took her challenge to the Supreme Court, arguing that bureaucratic rules which discriminate against long-term cohabitees should not be permitted. At the final hearing, Five Supreme Court justices unanimously ruled she was entitled to receive payments under the pension scheme, saying that the nomination form was “unlawful discrimination”.

After winning her case, Ms Webster said “[the] positive decision from the Supreme Court is likely to impact on discrimination against cohabitees across a wide range of areas, not just pension rights.”

Her comments were echoed by her solicitor, Gareth Mitchell, who said:

“Denying bereaved cohabitees access to survivor pensions causes huge distress and financial hardship. 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,” he added.

What sort of implications will the Supreme Court ruling have?

The Supreme Court ruling could have implications for the rights of co-habiting couples working in the public sector; such as NHS staff, teachers, civil servants and police, although the local government schemes in England, Wales and in Scotland have already been changed. Other public sector schemes could also change their rules so unmarried couples automatically benefit from survivor’s pensions without being opted in. Even if other schemes do change their rules, cohabitees would still have to prove that, as a couple, they had been together for two years and were financially interdependent.

Former Pensions’ Minister, Steve Webb, believes the judgement will lead to a more consistent approach from pension providers to married and cohabiting couples. However, solicitor Nicola Waldman, private client partner at law firm Hodge Jones and Allen, believes the court ruling could have wider implications and could prompt further cases that could potentially affect the tax system:

“What is particularly interesting about this case is whether it will spark fresh legal challenges in other areas of perceived discrimination against cohabiting couples, including inheritance tax and capital gains tax,” she said.

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