1st Aug 2017

Same sex spouses to receive equal pension rights

In a recent high profile case, the Supreme Court has ruled that married, homosexual couples should receive the same pension rights as those in heterosexual marriage.

Pension rights

The majority of occupational pension schemes currently provide “widow or widowers benefits”, whereby the surviving spouse receives 50% of the value of a pension that their late spouse had built up. This benefit is provided on death and is paid for the rest of the surviving spouse’s life. These benefits do not generally take into account the date of the marriage, but merely state that the parties must be married at the time of death.  

Legal challenge

The case, which is being credited with triggering a shift in the legal status of such clauses was brought before the Supreme Court by a 66 year old former cavalry officer, John Walker. Mr Walker had paid into an occupational pension scheme between 1980 and 2003. He subsequently entered into a civil partnership in 2006 with his current husband and later converted this to a marriage when the laws changed.

Mr Walker was informed that his husband would not receive the full spousal pension on his death, due to the fact that his service began before 2005 – the year Civil Partnerships became legal in the UK. This decision was based on a clause within the Equality Act (2010), which has an exemption for employers which allows employers to exclude civil partners who paid into the scheme before December 2005.  Mr Walker took legal action as he wanted to ensure that, should he die first, his husband would receive an adequate pension.

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Mr Walker’s favour. It was ruled that the exemption under the 2010 act was "incompatible with EU law and must be disapplied". As a result of the ruling, should Mr Walker die and remain married, his husband will now receive a pension of around £45,000 per year.

Timely reform

Given the changes that have occurred in recent years to modernise relationship statuses, including civil partnerships and same sex marriages, it seems absurd that up until now homosexual spouses did not receive equal pension rights. While questions remain around what will happen to such rulings based on EU law after ‘Brexit’ the reform here is a welcome and overdue development.

Danielle Day is a Family Lawyer at Berwins. Along with her colleagues in the firm’s industry ranked Family Team she is a member of Resolution and is committed to promoting a non-confrontational approach in separation and divorce.

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