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Unmarried partners entitled to benefit from their late partner’s pensions

20th Dec 2018

From now on unmarried cohabitants will be entitled to benefit from their late partner’s pension if they die, irrespective of whether they have been nominated as a beneficiary.

Brown Turner Ross’ Head of Private Client, Thomas Rimmington, considers the the recent UK Supreme Court “landmark” judgment in relating to an unmarried partner having access to her late partner’s pension.

In this case, Denise Brewster, was not married to her long-term partner, Lenny McMullan, and when he sadly passed away she was told by her partner’s employer that she was not entitled to payments from his occupational pension because he had not nominated her as a beneficiary and they were not married. For married couples the “nominated beneficiary form” is not required and spouses are automatically entitled to benefit from the pension.

The Supreme Court has ruled that Ms Brewster is entitled to receive payments from the pension.

Ms Brewster and Mr McMullen became engaged on Christmas Eve 2009 but Mr McMullen died suddenly between Christmas night and Boxing Day. Mr McMullen had worked for 15 years for Translink, the provider of Northern Ireland’s public transport network.  

The decision of Translink to exclude Ms McMullen from receiving her late partner’s pension was appealed successfully in the High Court in 2012 but this was later overturned by Northern Ireland’s Court of Appeal.

Ms Brewster then took the case to the Supreme Court and won again. Lord Kerr, delivering the Supreme Court’s judgment, ordered that the requirement for a surviving cohabitant to have been nominated by the pension scheme member, in this case Mr McMullen, should be disapplied.

The effect is that the law has now been changed by the Supreme Court’s ruling so that from now on unmarried cohabitants will be entitled to benefit from their late partner’s pension if they die, irrespective of whether they have been nominated as a beneficiary.

In my view this is a very sensible and necessary decision by the Supreme Court. Many pension scheme rules were created in the 1970s and at that time the most common family structure was founded in marriage. However, nearly 50 years on it is far more commonplace for people to live as unmarried cohabitants and the rules needed modernisation to reflect that fact.

Thomas advises on all aspects of Private Client including the drafting of wills and trusts, Lasting Powers of Attorney and the administration of estates.