Pension victory for woman denied pension after partner's death

Denise Brewster

Denise Brewster has triumphed at the High Court, winning the right to a survivor's pension after her long-term partner, Lenny McMullan, passed away. It could open the floodgates for millions of unmarried partners.

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Denise, a lifeguard from Coleraine, had lived with Lenny for ten years. She was shocked by his sudden and unexpected death at the age of just 43, at Christmas 2009, but her pain didn't end there, because her partner's employer refused to pay her a survivor's pension.

At the time of his death, Lenny had worked for the Northern Ireland public transport service - and had a pension administered by the Northern Ireland Local Government Officer's Superannuation Committee.

The pension scheme offered automatic survivors' pensions for husbands and wives of employees, but those who were unmarried had to complete a form naming their partner as a beneficiary. Unfortunately, Lenny had not completed the paperwork, so Denise was told she wasn't entitled to anything - despite the fact the couple had just got engaged.

However, Denise and her lawyers argued that the extra layer of administration discriminated against unmarried couples. She crowdfunded enough money to take the case through the courts: winning at the High Court, losing at the Court of Appeal, and finally after eight years winning again at the Supreme Court. It ruled that she had been a victim of 'unlawful discrimination', and awarded her the survivor's pension

What this means

The result could have a major impact on millions of unmarried partners of people working in the public sector - including teachers, NHS staff and the police. They would still have to prove they had been together for a minimum length of time, and that they were financially reliant on one another, but they could argue that not receiving a pension would constitute discrimination.

Over time, the rules of the scheme may be changed to accommodate the ruling - and reflect the fact that local government schemes in England, Wales and Scotland already pay survivors' pensions to unmarried co-habiting couples (as do most private occupational schemes).

Certainly this is the hope of UNISON general secretary Dave Prentis, who said: "It means the Northern Ireland local government pension scheme and others covering people working in education, the NHS and the civil service will now have to look again at their rules. The last thing a recently bereaved person needs is to have to fight for a pension that's rightfully theirs. This thankfully will no longer be necessary."

Rayner Grice, a partner specialising in Family Law with law firm Clarke Willmott adds that this could spark more challenges on issues ranging from inheritance to tax. He says: "It is hoped that the Supreme Court's decision should prompt the Government to move more proactively in modernising the law for cohabiting couples, who are currently the fastest-growing family type in the UK, currently numbering some 3.3 million.... Many couples choose not to wed, others can't afford to. There are competing moral views but the truth remains that cohabitation doesn't afford people the same rights in law as married couples. The question must be whether that needs to change, particularly for cohabiting families with children who have needs that require protection."

Unfortunately, while this is a positive step for unmarried couples, it's not a done deal. At this stage it's unclear whether it will impact on people who have already been discriminated against because of their marital status, or whether people who have already lost a partner and been denied payments will continue to be deprived of a pension. That will depend on another court hearing.

How we spend our pensions
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How we spend our pensions

Figures from Saga show that the over 50s now account for the majority of money spent by Brits on travel and tourism. They have the time to spare, the money, and they are healthy enough to take on the world.

A poll from Abta found that in the wake of pension freedoms, 35% of people were considering cashing in at least part of their pension to travel. A separate study by Senior Railcard found that pensioners take an average of three holidays a year, plus two weekends away, and 17 day trips.

Research from Senior Railcard found that retirees eat out an average of three times a month. However, one in ten do so more than twice a week, and one in three people said that one of the first things they did when they retired was to go out for lunch with their friends.

Of course, just because retirees want to enjoy themselves, it doesn't mean they are happy to throw money away. The vast majority are keen to eat at lunchtimes, when a fixed lunch menu tends to be cheaper, and canny retirees are skilled at tracking down pensioner special offers too.

Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that on average nearly a fifth of the money spent by people aged 65-74 is on leisure. This includes everything from the cinema and theatre to golfing and gardening. They spent more on this than on food, energy bills and transport.

A report by Canada Life found that retirees are spending £4,279 a year on having fun - that’s more than £1,000 more than they spend on boring essentials, and is a 74% increase over the past ten years. It went on to predict that this trend was set to continue, and that pension freedoms would encourage people to spoil themselves a bit more in retirement

Pensioner property wealth is now over £850 billion, and all these family homes don’t look after themselves. The Senior Railcard survey put home renovations in the top 20 activities people got stuck into on retirement, and figures from ABTA found that almost a third of people who were considering raiding their pension pots under the new pension freedoms planned to spend the cash on their home. This seems like an eminently sensible investment - looking after what is undoubtedly their most valuable asset.

Unsurprisingly, while some pensioners are very well off indeed, others are struggling with debt. Figures from Key Retirement found that the average retiree has £34,000 of debt.

Most of this is mortgage borrowing - in many cases driven up by the number of people who unwittingly signed up to an interest-only mortgage. However, credit cards, overdrafts, and loans are also common. It’s why so many pensioners have used pension freedoms to access enough cash to pay their debts.

The day to day basics are swallowing up their fair share of pensioner cash too. On average, people aged 65-74 spend a third of their weekly income on essentials like food and bills - which is hardly living the high life.
The bank of gran and grandad has become an increasingly vital source of cash for families. According to Key Retirement, of those who release equity from their property, 21% of them use the cash to treat their children and grandchildren. This includes an average of £33,350 to help children get onto the property ladder, £6,000 to buy them a new car, £11,000 on family weddings, and £24,780 giving grandchildren a helping hand.

While retirees are quite rightly spending what they need to enjoy retirement, they are hardly all throwing caution to the wind, buying flash cars and spending the kids' inheritance.

Most expect to have something left over to pass onto their family after their death. Some 69% expect to leave property in their wills, and 75% expect to leave cash - according to - because while baby boomers know how to have fun - they also know how to save for the future.


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