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Cohabitee wins right to late partner’s military pension

A woman refused her late partner’s military pension because she was still technically married to her estranged husband has won a landmark victory for cohabiting couples in the Court of Appeal.

Appeal judges unanimously overturned a previous decision allowing Jane Langford to claim under the armed forces compensation scheme in a ruling likely to have huge implications for other unmarried couples in the public sector.

Lord Justice McCombe said the RAF’s ‘broad exclusionary rule’ barring married partners from receiving such compensation was ‘a sledgehammer to crack a nut’.

He said that the discrimination in the rule was ‘unlawful and cannot be justified or proportionate in Ms Langford’s case’.

Background

Ms Langford had been in a relationship with Air Commodore Christopher Green for 15 years when he died unexpectedly from a heart attack in 2011.

Although the RAF pension scheme allows the unmarried partners of officers to receive their pension if they die, Ms Langford was disqualified because she had remained married to her estranged husband for 17 years.

As a result of not being eligible for the pension, she says, she struggled to pay the mortgage and was forced to rent out part of her home as she fought for eight years to win the right to claim it.

“I’m so pleased if it can benefit others in a similar situation,” she said after the ruling. “I wouldn’t like to see anybody treated the way I was treated.”

Court ruling

The armed forces compensation scheme entitles the partners of military personnel to a bereavement grant and guaranteed income until they die but excludes those who remain married to someone else.

This exclusion, the Court of Appeal found, was ‘unlawfully discriminatory’ and breached Ms Langford’s human rights.

However, Lord Justice McCombe emphasised that the decision applied specifically to Ms Langford’s case and he could not rule out that exclusionary terms might be used in a ‘justified and proportionate way’ in other cases.

Implications

The Court of Appeal ruling means that Ms Langford can now claim back payments of her late partner’s pension scheme.

It also potentially opens the floodgates to claims, including for back pay, from other people denied their late partner’s pension because they were still married to someone else.

This rule, held to be unlawful in Ms Langford’s case, is found in most public sector schemes including education, the police, fire service, NHS and civil service.

Common law marriage myth

Six out of every ten couples who live together mistakenly believe they have the same protection as married couples.

Although it remains the fact that unmarried couples are treated very differently in law from married couples, there are sensible steps cohabiting couples can take to protect themselves legally and financially including taking out a cohabitation agreement, setting up a declaration of trust and making and regularly reviewing Wills.

For more information about this area of the law, please contact Wards Solicitors’ specialist Cohabitation Team.

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