8th Aug 2019

Are pension rights for unmarried couples changing?

When one half of a married couple passes away, the survivor is often left with provisions from their late spouse’s pension. At present, the situation is not as clear-cut for unmarried couples – even if they’ve lived together for several years and have perhaps bought a  house together or started a family.

A recent court ruling could, however lead to changes. After an eight-year legal battle, the Court of Appeal has ruled that an unmarried partner can benefit from a deceased partner’s pension. 

Denied pension rights

The case involved Jane Langford, who had been living with Christopher Green for 15 years, when he died suddenly. Mr Green was a serving RAF officer and Ms Langford had always anticipated that she would benefit from his pension as the RAF pension scheme allowed unmarried partners of officers to receive pension benefits on their partners death. Ms Langford was horrified to learn that she was disqualified under the rules of the scheme as, despite separating from her husband for some 17 years, she had not formalised the end of the relationship with a divorce.

She was determined not to give up, she continued the fight and the Court of Appeal decided that the rule was a breach of her human rights and that she was entitled to benefit under the scheme. The rule in question is a common one in public sector pension schemes and will have important implications for unmarried couples who live together. Those who have in the past been refused pensions, might now wish to bring a claim which could be backdated.

In the past, Cohabitees have had very few rights against the other when the relationship has ended, either during their lifetime or on death. There is no such thing as a “common-law spouse”. On death, the situation is a little better but still not clear. 

Taking action to assert rights 

As seen in Ms Langford’s case, in certain circumstances cohabitees can benefit from the deceased partners pension. In addition, it might be possible to bring a claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependents) Act 1975.

Resolution, the organisation of family lawyers that is committed to a non-confrontational and constructive approach, is actively campaigning for better protection for cohabitees. Resolution proposes a legal framework of rights and responsibilities that each would have to the other. There would be eligibility criteria and the rights that are acquired will be different from those that married couples will have. However, the law would be much clearer, and everybody would know where they stood at the outset rather than having to bring a difficult claim with a potentially small prospect of success.

At present, unmarried couples can enter into Cohabitation Agreements. These agreements do provide some form of protection in a legal system which provides very little protection in legislation. If you are unmarried and living with a long-term partner, I would strongly urge you to seek legal advice and consider one of these agreements.

Danielle Day is Head of Family law at Berwins and is recognised in legal directories Chambers & Partners and Legal 500. 

To discuss your rights with an experienced cohabitation agreement solicitor, call Berwins' Family legal team on 01423 543 108 or email Family@berwin.co.uk 

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