Unmarried cohabitant succeeds in claim for late partner’s pension in landmark case

March 13, 2017

On 8 February 2017, Denise Brewster won a landmark appeal in the Supreme Court which could improve the rights of millions of other cohabitees across the UK. Ms Brewster had been denied payments from her long-term partner’s pension following his death because they were not married and he had not named her as a nominee under his pension scheme.

Ms Brewster brought her case following the death of her partner William McMullan in 2009. Mr McMullan was a member of the Northern Irish Local Government Pension Scheme (NILGOSC). She and Mr McMullan had been in a relationship for 10 years prior to his death, buying a house together and getting engaged only two days before his sudden death. Under the NILGOSC scheme, a pension is payable to a cohabiting partner on the death of a member provided two years of cohabitation have passed, requirements regarding financial dependency are met and also a nomination form has been completed. The nomination form is not required if the deceased member was married or in a civil partnership.

Following Mr McMullan’s death, NILGOSC refused to pay the pension to Ms Brewster as, although the cohabitation and financial dependency requirements were clearly met, no nomination form had been completed. Ms Brewster complained that this was unlawful discrimination against unmarried partners in breach of the European Convention of Human Rights.

Ms Brewster took the case to the Supreme Court. It ruled that the scheme’s regulations at the time already required a surviving partner to establish that a genuine and subsisting relationship existed (from the two-year co-habitation rule), so the nomination requirement added nothing to this evidential hurdle. As such Ms Brewster was entitled to payment out of the pension scheme.

The Supreme Court’s decision will have implications for a number of other public sector pension schemes, which also have a nomination form requirement, and may also affect decisions previously taken by the administering bodies to refuse a survivor’s pension while the requirement for a nomination form was in place. It is worth noting that the implications are localised to Northern Ireland as England, Scotland and Wales abolished the need to opt in many years ago.

This article has been produced for general information purposes and further advice should be sought from a professional advisor.

Cleaver Fulton Rankin is a multi-service law firm based in Belfast. We have dedicated and highly experienced private client law solicitors who can advise on all legal matters relating to the wills, trusts and inheritance tax planning. For more information, please call our office on 028 9024 3141.