8th Feb 2017

Asserting Pension Rights for Unmarried Couples

The latest Supreme Court ruling to hit the headlines has seen a woman gain the right to receive payments from her late partner’s pension – a ruling which looks set to transform similar rights of unmarried couples. 


A case of ‘unlawful discrimination’

The ruling in favour of Denise Brewster, whose long-term partner Lenny McMullan died suddenly at Christmas 2009, comes at the end of an eight-year battle for justice in UK courts. 

Mr McMullan had worked for Northern Ireland public transport service, Translink, for 15 years and had made a regular contribution to an occupational pension scheme. While he had lived with his partner for 10 years in a home which they owned together, the Northern Ireland Local Government Officers' Superannuation Committee which administered the pension argued that, as the couple were unmarried and no formal nomination had been made in the event of death, Ms Brewster had no claim on her late partner’s pension.

The Supreme Court has now condemned the stand point as “unlawful discrimination” – no nomination is required for married couples – and ordered the public-sector management organisation to accept Ms Brewster as a beneficiary.


Far reaching implications

The case highlight a real need for reform of some existing practices and as such implications look set to reach far beyond the types of public sector organisations immediately affected.

As couples increasingly choose to cohabit rather than enter into marriage or civil partnerships, there is a very real gap in protection under existing family law. Where long term cohabitees separate, there is currently no resource to maintenance or pension and little financial protection generally, meaning people can find themselves in dire straits on separation. Here, reform is sorely needed.


Practical steps

Unfortunately, there exists a real knowledge gap among cohabiting couples which have often exposed themselves to potential risks should a relationship breakdown.

Couples should look very carefully at the provisions they have in place. This case has highlighted how important it is to check death benefits – whether they be pensions, death in service or other life policies.When planning for the future a Will is widely accepted as a vital document, but such benefits generally pass outside of the terms of a Will, instead passing by a nomination form provided by the employer/scheme administrator. 

Reform should come and this case is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, however until it does, cohabiting couples should take the time to seriously consider their existing nominations.

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