Unmarried Woman Wins Pension Battle in UK Supreme Court

22 February 2017

An unmarried woman has won her pension battle in the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, a ruling which could potentially change the pension rights of unmarried couples who live together.

The case involves Denise Brewster, a lifeguard from Northern Ireland. Denise and her long-term partner Lenny McCullan had lived together for 10 years and owned a home together. On Christmas Eve in 2009 the couple got engaged, but sadly just two days later, Mr McCullan suddenly died aged 43.

Mr McCullan had worked for a public transport service in Northern Ireland for 15 years and had built up a considerable pension over that time. But in order for Ms Brewster to benefit from the pension, Mr McCullan would have had to sign a Nomination Form, making her eligible to receive a Survivor’s Allowance.

Unfortunately this form had not been completed, meaning Ms Brewster was technically not entitled to receive anything, despite the fact the two had been in a long-term, financially interdependent relationship. Ms Brewster then started a long legal battle on the grounds that she was the victim of serious discrimination.

Her argument centred on the fact that married couples do not have to sign a Nomination Form, and instead enjoy an automatic right to a Survivor’s Allowance. Ms Brewster said she was being discriminated against for not being married, which was a breach of her human right to the ‘peaceful enjoyment of possessions without discrimination’.

The case went from the High Court in Northern Ireland, to the Court of Appeal in Northern Ireland, and finally to the UK Supreme Court. The Supreme Court recently ruled in Ms Brewster’s favour, saying that as a long-standing cohabitee, Ms Brewster should enjoy the same treatment under the pension scheme as a married or civil partner.

The decision could result in other public pension schemes changing their rules to allow unmarried couples to benefit from a Survivor's Pension without being opted in. However they would still have to prove that, as a couple, they had been together for a minimum of two years and were financially interdependent.

The Supreme Court ruling could see an increase in the number of applications from cohabitees who are in a similar situation. It also raises questions as to whether there should there be a change in the way pensions are dealt with, and whether Nomination Forms should be discarded. This could make cohabitees automatically entitled to a Survivor’s Pension, putting them in the same position as that of a married spouse.

The Head of Family Law at Co-op Legal Services said: “This decision could see a change to the way in which pensions are dealt with in the future. Given we have over 3 million cohabiting couples living in the UK, this most recent decision has laid a precedent that could be relied upon by a large section of our community.”

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