After her partner died suddenly Denise was told by his pension fund that she was not entitled to payments from his occupational pension because he had failed to sign a form nominating her as a beneficiary. Her partner, Lenny McMullan, had 15 years service with Translink, the public transport service in Northern Ireland, and had contributed to the local government pension scheme. Translink argued that Denise was not entitled to his pension because they were not married and he had not specifically nominated her as a beneficiary. If they were married the pension entitlement would have switched automatically to her upon Lenny McMullan’s death.
Considering this to be discriminatory Denise Brewster took her case to the High Court and won but, on appeal, the decision was reversed. Using crowdfunding to the necessary costs she then took her case to the Supreme Court who reversed the Appeal Court’s decision and found in her favour.
Many commentators see this ruling as further evidence that the differentiation shown by the law between married and cohabiting couples is converging towards greater equality.
Graeme Fraser of Resolution said: “Today's Supreme Court decision is highly significant for millions of unmarried couples in the UK in being placed on a fairer footing. It is hoped that this decision will pave the way for further recognition of their family rights and needs not only by the Courts but by Parliament.”
More couples than ever before choose to live together without the formality of marriage and this trend is expected to continue. It is estimated that there are about 3.3m cohabiting couples in the UK and they are the fastest growing type of family unit. However it can be argued that the law has been slow to recognize this trend.
Most people in the UK are unaware of the significant differences that exist in law between married couples and those who choose to cohabit. These differences can impact upon property, finance, investments, children and inheritance. There is an assumption that ‘common law marriage’ exists and will take care of everything – but it doesn’t. There is no such thing as common law marriage.
In his book Living Together and the Law: A Guide to Cohabitation, author David Cobern explores the current situation and he has written his book specifically for the ordinary man or woman without any legal background. He considers the risks and drawbacks but provides sound advice and solutions.
If you live together with a partner or are thinking about setting up a home together it is well worth reading just to ensure you both take advantage of the law as it stands and that at some future point do not find yourself disadvantaged.