Unmarried woman wins automatic right to late partner’s pension in decision that could affect millions

Unmarried partners could be entitled to a “survivors pension” following a landmark Supreme Court ruling yesterday.

A case won by a woman who was denied access to her long-term partner’s pension after he died suddenly will improve the pension rights of millions of unmarried couples across the UK.

Denise Brewster, in her early 40s, argued she was discriminated against after being told she was not entitled to payments from her late partner’s occupational pension because he had failed to sign a form nominating her as a beneficiary.

Such forms are not required for married couples but until now public sector pension schemes and some private sector pensions have demanded them for couples who are not married.

Ms Brewster and Lenny McMullan had lived together for 10 years and owned their own home.

They got engaged on Christmas Eve 2009, but Mr McMullan died suddenly between Christmas night and the early hours of Boxing Day morning.

At the time of his death Mr McMullan had 15 years’ service with Translink, which delivers Northern Ireland’s public transport services. He was paying into Northern Ireland’s local government pension scheme.

Ms Brewster was denied access to her partner’s pension by Translink on the grounds that she and Lenny had been cohabiting and were not married.

She took her case to the High Court in 2012 and won.  But the Northern Ireland Local Government Superannuation Scheme appealed against the decision and in 2013 it was overturned by a two to one majority in Northern Ireland’s Court of Appeal.

In order to take her case to the Supreme Court, Ms Brewster turned to crowd-funding to raise the initial £4,000 required, since there is no Legal Aid available for such cases.

Giving the Supreme Court’s ruling, Lord Kerr said: “To suggest that, in furtherance of that objective, a requirement that the surviving cohabitant must be nominated by the scheme member justified the limitation of the appellant’s Article 14 right, is, at least highly questionable.” He ordered the nomination form to be “disapplied”, arguing there was “no rational connection between the objective and the imposition of the nomination requirement”.

What will the ruling mean for cohabiting couples?

The myth of the ‘common-law marriage’ still pervades, but in reality cohabiting couples have few of the rights of their married counterparts.

For example, should one partner die, the other has no automatic right to inherit from them, even if they have been together for years.

Similarly, if one partner dies, the other is not eligible for any bereavement benefits as they would be if they were married.

This applies even if the unmarried couple have children together.

Yesterday’s Supreme Court decision bestowed on Denise Brewster the same right to claim a ‘survivor’s pension’ as she would have done had she been married to her partner Lenny McMullan.

It’s seen as a landmark case because it could set precedent for future situations where a distinction is made between married and unmarried couples.

It remains to be seen how this will play out in reality, but the decision is bound to be used in future cases to strengthen the rights of unmarried couples, particularly in the case of pensions.




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