Supreme court judgement could impact cohabitees’ pension rights

A recent judgement from the Supreme Court is likely to improve the pension rights of co-habiting couples in the public sector.

After losing her long-term partner, Denise Brewster was denied payments from his occupational pension, which she contested made her the victim of “serious discrimination”.

For 10 years Ms Brewster had co-habited with her partner Lenny McMullan, with the couple owning their own home together.

Two days after they got engaged, Mr McMullan died suddenly on Boxing Day 2009, aged 43.

He had been working for the Northern Ireland public transport service, Translink, at the time of his death. Having been an employee of the company for 15 years, Mr McMullan had been paying into an occupational pension scheme which was administered by the Norther Ireland Local Government Officers’ Superannuation Committee.

Had the couple been married, Ms Brewster would have automatically received a share of this pension.

For cohabitees, however, the conditions are different. Eligibility for the survivor’s allowance rests on being nominated on a form. Ms Brewster had been nominated on a form so was denied access to the funds.

In court, Ms Brewster argued that the system was discriminatory against her and a breach of her human rights.

Fighting for a future pension, she stated: “I had to make a stand for this and this was about our love and what we were for each other. Myself and Lenny both paid into that pension scheme. We paid into that scheme for years and neither I nor anyone belonging to Lenny’s family were going to be able to avail of that pension fund that we had paid into the pot.”

The issue was initially taken to the High Court in Northern Ireland, where Ms Brewster initially won the case.

However, when brought to Northern Ireland’s Court of Appeal, the judgement was overturned.

It was finally taken to the UK’s Supreme Court, where the five justices ruled that Ms Brewster was entitled to the pension scheme payments.

Despite changes being made to the local government scheme in England and Wales, the decision of the Supreme Court could have an impact on public sector workers who are co-habiting.

Similarly, numerous other schemes may feel an impact from the result, potentially leading unmarried couples to receive the survivors’ allowance automatically. However, the proof would still be required in regards to financial interdependency and that they had lived together for a minimum time period.

As yet, the exact impact the decision will have is uncertain. Whether any retrospective rule changes will be made is likely to depend upon a future hearing.

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