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Unmarried woman wins rights to her dead partner’s pension

The pension rights of millions of unmarried couples in the public sector have received a boost following a landmark ruling in the Supreme Court.

It took Denise Brewster from Northern Ireland eight years to win her legal battle. She argued she was being discriminated against after being denied access to her late partner's occupational pension because he hadn't signed a form nominating her as a beneficiary.

Five Supreme Court justices unanimously ruled that Ms Brewster is entitled to receive payments under the pension scheme and condemned the nomination form as 'unlawful discrimination' because anyone married, doesn't have to fill it in. Until now, public sector pension schemes have demanded them for couples who are not married.

The judgement has wide implications for the rights of co-habiting couples working in the public sector including nurses, teachers, police and civil servants, although local government schemes have already been changed in England and Wales. Other public sector schemes could now be looking at changing their rules.

Second class citizens

Former pensions minister Sir Steve Webb said: "It is totally unacceptable for cohabiting couples to be treated as second-class citizens. With more than six million people living together as couples and the numbers rising every year, this is an issue that needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. We need pension scheme rules which reflect the world we live in today and not the world of 50 years ago."

Ten year relationship

Ms Brewster, now 42, had been living with her partner, Lenny McMullan, for ten years. They owned their own home and got engaged on Christmas Eve 2009 but Mr McMullan died unexpectedly little more than a day later.

At the time of his death, he had 15 years' service with Translink, which delivers Northern Ireland's public transport services, and was paying into Northern Ireland's local government pension scheme.

If they had been married, Ms Brewster would have automatically shared the pension he had built up. As a cohabiting partner, she would have been entitled to a 'survivor's allowance' but only if she had been nominated on the form which had not been completed, although Ms Brewster thought it had.

Long, hard battle

Ms Brewster took her case to the High Court in 2012 and won. But the Norther Ireland Local Government Superannuation Scheme appealed against the decision and in 2013 it was overturned by a two to one majority in Northern Ireland's Court of Appeal.

Unabashed, Ms Brewster then began crowd funding to take her case to the Supreme Court because there is no Legal Aid available for such cases.

On her fundraising page she explained her motivation: "I don't want another partner to go through what I have gone through. It is hard enough trying to come to terms with such a loss, without the additional financial and emotional burden. I don't want other families to be denied what their partners would have wanted them to have.

"I'm trying to ensure that the nomination form requirement is removed because of its discriminatory effect. If the Supreme Court agrees with me then this is likely to result in the removal of the nomination form requirement not only from the Northern Ireland local government pension scheme but also from other schemes across the UK.

"In addition, my lawyers have explained that a positive Supreme Court decision will have a broader impact on co-habitee rights - clarifying when the courts should intervene to ensure a level playing field between long-term cohabitees and those who are married or in civil partnerships."

Questions remain

While the success of Ms Brewster's campaign improves the pension rights for cohabitees if their partner dies, it does not help if that cohabitational relationship ends by separation rather than death.

It remains the fact that cohabitees are treated very differently in law from married couples and have quite different rights in respect of pension sharing, to name just one area.

  • To find out more about what legal steps you can take to protect yourself as a cohabitee, please contact Claire Fraser, part of our specialist cohabitation team.