Pension victory for woman denied pension after partner's death

Denise Brewster won the right to a survivor’s pension despite not being married - has she changed the rules?

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.

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