Skip to content

Cohabitees’ rights – time for review?

A Supreme Court ruling has shifted the landscape when it comes to the pension rights of unmarried couples.

What has happened?

The Supreme Court has unanimously agreed that a surviving partner should not be discriminated against because of their marital status and is entitled to receive a survivor’s pension.

The ruling was made following the case of Denise Brewster, who was denied payments from her late partner Lenny McMullan’s occupational pension.

Ms Brewster, who lived with Mr McMullan for 10 years in a home they jointly owned, argued that she was the victim of “serious discrimination” after she was told that she had no rights over his pension.

Mr Brewster, who had worked for the Northern Ireland public transport service, Translink, for 15 years, had paid money into an occupational pension scheme administered by the Northern Ireland Local Government Officers’ Superannuation Committee (NILGOSC).

If they had been married Ms Brewster would have automatically shared the pension that he had built up.

Instead, co-habiting partners were only eligible for survivor’s allowances in the same way if they were nominated on a form, which Ms Brewster believed had been done.

The Supreme Court ruled that the use of the form was “unlawful discrimination” because only unmarried couples had to fill it in. As a result, Ms Brewster had a right to receive a survivor’s pension.

What does the ruling mean?

The result has potential implications for the rights of co-habiting couples working in the public sector – including nurses, teachers, civil servants and police, although the local government schemes in England, Wales and in Scotland has already been changed.

With more and more couples choosing to cohabit, the decision highlights the question of whether reform is needed to provide all cohabitees the same rights of financial protection as those who have married or entered a civil partnership.

However, for now, those rights are limited and it is important for couples who haven’t married to be aware that their rights aren’t the same.

Financial claims for cohabitees remain restricted to property claims within Trust of Land and Appointment of Trustees Act and financial claims for children.

How can Ward Hadaway help?

For further information on the issues raised by this update or on any other aspect of family law, please get in touch.

Please note that this briefing is designed to be informative, not advisory and represents our understanding of English law and practice as at the date indicated. We would always recommend that you should seek specific guidance on any particular legal issue.

This page may contain links that direct you to third party websites. We have no control over and are not responsible for the content, use by you or availability of those third party websites, for any products or services you buy through those sites or for the treatment of any personal information you provide to the third party.

Follow us on LinkedIn

Keep up to date with all the latest updates and insights from our expert team

Take me there

What we're thinking