Pension court ruling for cohabiting couples

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A Supreme Court ruling means that pension schemes may have to make changes so cohabiting couples inherit. The ruling says that pension schemes can’t ask couples who live together to fill in a form before they inherit, when married couples don’t have to.

Q. What’s the case about?

A. The case was brought by Denise Brewster whose partner Lenny McMullan died in 2009. They’d been living together for ten years and had just got engaged. Lenny McMullan was a member of the local government pension scheme in Northern Ireland, and its rules say that couples who live together can only inherit each other’s pension if the partner who’s in the pension scheme has filled in a form called a ‘nomination form’

Couples who are married don’t have to do this as widows and widowers are automatically entitled to what’s called a ‘survivor’s pension’ if their husband or wife dies. In fact, Denise Brewster thought that her partner had filled in this form.

She took the legal action because she believed the nomination forms discriminated against her and breached her human rights. The Supreme Court, which is the highest court in the UK, agreed.

Q. Do many pension schemes take the same approach?

A. The pension scheme in question was the local government pension scheme in Northern Ireland. Local government pension schemes in England, Wales and Scotland had already changed their rules so that couples who live together don’t have to fill in a form in order for their partner to receive a pension payment after they’ve died.

Most pension in the private sector also let couples who live together inherit a survivor’s pension without them having to fill in a form first. However, a number of public sector pensions, including the NHS, teachers, fire service and police pension schemes, still insist that people who join the pension scheme fill in a form so that their partner can inherit a pension when they die.

This could mean that these pension schemes have to change their rules.

Q. Was this a straightforward case?

A. No, it certainly wasn’t. Denise has been fighting her case for eight years. She was successful in the Supreme Court in Northern Ireland, but then lost her case at the Court of Appeal. As she has now won her legal case in the Supreme Court, this decision will stand. However, it doesn’t automatically give couples who live together rights to inherit their partners pension, so it is still worth filling in a nomination form if this applies to you.

Q. How do I make sure my partner inherits my pension if I die?

A. The rules vary according to the type of pension you have and – if it’s a workplace pension – the rules of the pension scheme. You should be given a nomination form when you first join the pension, but you may be able to download one if you log onto your pension provider’s website or you can ask for one.

Related articles:

Pensions jargon explained – what pension terms mean

How to draw up a will and talk about important issues before your death

The 55% tax charge on pensions; how does it work and what’s changing?

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