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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

Court ruling sets precedent for ‘millions of cohabitees’ denied pension benefits

The Supreme Court has today ruled in favor of a woman who was denied a ‘survivors pension’ after her partner died, in a landmark decision that could affect millions of cohabitees across the UK.

Decision has significant implications for millions ©iStock
Decision has significant implications for millions ©iStock

Denise Brewster’s partner had been paying into the Northern Ireland Local Government Scheme for 15 years before he suddenly died just days after becoming engaged to Brewster.

As they were never married, and a nomination form was not completed, it was previously decided that Brewster wouldn't be automatically entitled to a pension, however, in an unprecedented judgment, the Supreme Court ruled that this was unlawful and in breach of the Human Rights Act.

Her solicitor, Gareth Mitchell, said: “Denying bereaved cohabitees access to survivor pensions causes huge distress and financial hardship. Now that around one in six families in the UK are cohabiting families, reform is long overdue.

“The decision has significant implications for millions of cohabitees in relation to pension benefits. It also lays down the approach to be adopted when considering complaints of discrimination on the grounds of marital status in other areas.”

The rule, which the Supreme Court declared was unlawful, is found in most of the UK’s public sector pension schemes, of which there are around 12 million members.

It is also found in many defined benefit pension schemes in the private sector, of which there are approximately 11 million members, highlighting the significance of today’s ruling for the whole of the UK.

Although the Human Rights Act does not apply to private sector schemes, it is anticipated that millions of unmarried, cohabiting people will now expect their pension scheme providers to follow suit.

Royal London director of policy, Steve Webb, said: “This is a very welcome ruling. 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”.

The Supreme Court judgment can be found here