Unmarried couples’ pension rights on death

Unmarried couples’ pension rights on death are likely to be improved across the UK following a landmark Supreme Court ruling earlier this month.


The case involved a woman who was denied access to her long-term partner’s pension after he died unexpectedly. Following a ruling in her favour, others in her position could now become entitled to claim a “survivor’s pension”.
Denise Brewster and Lenny McMullan had lived together for 10 years and owned their own home. They got engaged on Christmas Eve IN 2009, but tragically Mr McMullan died suddenly in the early hours of Boxing Day morning.
Ms Brewster argued she was discriminated against after being told she was not entitled to payments from her partner’s occupational pension because he had failed to sign a form nominating her as a beneficiary.
Nomination forms are not strictly required for married couples, but until now public sector pension schemes and some private sector pensions have demanded them for couples who are not married.
The case went to the High Court in 2012 and Ms Brewster won. However, the pension company (a local government scheme) appealed against the decision and in 2013 it was overturned in Northern Ireland’s Court of Appeal.
Ms Brewster turned to crowd-funding to raise the funds required to take her case to the Supreme Court, as Legal Aid is not available for cases like these.
This verdict could remove the need for people with unmarried long-term partners to have to sign nomination forms in order for the partner to be entitled to their pension if they die.
More than 7.5 million people in the UK today are living together but are not married and now make up more than 15% of all families.
If you are one of the unmarried couples living together who may be affected by this ruling, you should take advice from us to ensure that your rights are protected. This is important at all stages of a relationship, up to and including separation (if that becomes relevant to you).
We would also strongly recommend that all couples, and in particular unmarried couples, seek advice regarding their estates and planning for their futures. It is not automatically the case that partners living together (or even spouses) inherit their partner’s assets on death – sometimes even where those assets are co-owned. A properly drafted Will can prevent further heartache in the event of a tragedy befalling either of you.

Suzanne Thomas of our Family Department is available to advise you on these issues and more.

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