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Pension Death Benefits for Unmarried Couples

The pension rights of unmarried couples, at least in the public sector, have been substantially improved by a recent decision of the Supreme Court.

Lenny McMullan cohabited with his partner, Denise Brewster, for around 10 years and they owned their own home.  Mr McMullan died suddenly at Christmas in 2009 aged 43 years just two days after the couple had become engaged. At the time of his death Mr McMullan had worked for the Northern Ireland public transport service, Translink, for 15 years, paying into an occupational pension scheme administered by the Northern Ireland Local Government Officers' Superannuation Committee (NILGOSC).

If the couple had been married, Denise Brewster would have automatically shared his pension as the surviving spouse. However, as an unmarried couple, a cohabiting partner is only eligible for a pension allowance under the terms of the occupational pension scheme if she had been nominated on a form by Mr McMullen. Mr McMullan did not complete a nomination form for the lump sum death benefits to be paid to his partner. Therefore, Ms Brewster was not entitled to benefit from the lump sum.

Ms Brewster brought a case against Translink, arguing that the nomination forms discriminated against her and resulted in a breach of her human rights as an unmarried partner.

Five Supreme Court justices, including Deputy President Lady Hale, unanimously ruled that Ms Brewster was entitled to receive payments under the pension scheme on the grounds that the nomination form was “unlawful discrimination”. This result could have implications for the rights of cohabiting couples working in the public sector, such as NHS staff, teachers, civil servants and police.

The nomination forms used by Translink (and other public sector schemes) are less common in private sector schemes. Most private sector pension schemes should now provide for unmarried couples, but it would be wise to check the particular terms of your scheme with your pension provider.

In the light of this decision you should review the terms of your life insurance, death in service or pension policies, occupational or otherwise, and review the lump sum death benefits. It is important to ensure that your pension provider is aware of your wishes and what you want to happen to such benefits in the event of your death.

Your wishes should be clearly expressed in a nomination form, letter of wishes or deed of trust depending on the nature of the policy. You should check with the requirements of your pension provider who will normally be able to provide you with a nomination form to complete.

Tony Illsley
Partner with Rutherfords LLP

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