Unmarried cohabitee wins right to her former partner’s pension

File box with Pension written on - cohabitee pension

In a landmark case, the UK Supreme Court has backed a Northern Ireland woman’s right to receive her late partner’s pension. Most pension providers do not extend pension rights to cohabitee partners, only paying out automatically to spouses and civil partners.

Denise Brewster and Lenny McMullan had lived together for 10 years before getting engaged on Christmas Eve 2009. However, Mr McMullan died unexpectedly just two days later.  

No nomination form, no payments

Mr McMullan had worked for the Northern Ireland transport provider Translink, and had paid into the Northern Ireland local government pension scheme for 15 years. Under the terms of the pension scheme, Mr McCullen should have nominated Ms Brewster to receive a survivors’ pension. However, the form wasn’t submitted, and so the pension scheme refused to make payments to Ms Brewster.
However, Ms Brewster’s legal team argued that the requirement for such a form to be signed and submitted as ‘disproportionate’ and amounted to discrimination, and breached Articles 1 and 14 of the European convention on human rights. The five judges of the Supreme Court agreed.


“We need pension scheme rules which reflect the world we live in”

Interestingly, given that this ruling could cost pension companies dearly, Sir Steve Webb, former pensions minister and current director of pension firm Royal London, was quoted as saying:
“It is totally unacceptable for cohabiting couples to be treated as second-class citizens … We need pension scheme rules which reflect the world we live in today, and not the world of 50 years ago.”


UK Cohabitees: 6 million and rising

The ruling could affect a rising number of couple who cohabit rather than get married, amounting to more than 6 million people in 2015. It would also have implications for UK public sector pension schemes, many of which require unmarried members to sign pension nomination forms. The requirement to sign such a form also currently affects around 12million members of public pension schemes. 


By contrast, local government schemes in England, Wales and in Scotland have already been altered to permit co-habiting couples to automatically receive a survivor’s pension. Surviving partners are required to provide evidence of ‘financial interdependency’ and to have lived together for a minimum period of time (usually two years).



Public sector pension? Get the form and sign it!

The fact that this case had to go to the Supreme Court to be settled shows the importance of the humble nomination form. While the law may change in the long term, the short term solution is at least remarkably simple. If you want your partner to get your pension, get the form, sign it and send it in. It’ll cost you nothing but a few moments of your time, and will help secure your partner and any family’s financial stability should you pre-decease them.


Act now to protect your partner – if you want to

This case makes it clear that all cohabiting couples should define their intentions.  You and your partner should take independent legal advice before joining your finances, draw up new wills, complete any pension nomination forms required, and have a living together agreement.
However, we know from experience that some couples specifically do not get married, as they wish to avoid that level of commitment. Therefore, making clear your overall intention to your partner is key to avoiding future upset or disappointment.


If you'd like to discuss your legal position regarding your pension for your partner, spouse or family, call us for a no-obligation 30-minute consultation.