The Supreme Court has ruled that a woman who was denied bereavement payments following the death of her partner of 23 years, was unfairly treated.
The landmark court case which had been asked to rule whether Siobhan McLaughlin should have been allowed to receive a Widowed Parent’s Allowance.
The decision by the Supreme Court, which ruled that the denial of her claim was incompatible with human rights law, could lead to a flood of claims from those who have found themselves in a similar situation.
Ms McLaughlin, from County Antrim in Northern Ireland, had never married but had lived with her partner, John Adams, for 23 years and had four children with him.
When he died in 2014, she was denied a £2,000 lump sum bereavement payment as well as a weekly widowed parent allowance, which could have been worth up to £118 a week.
Explaining their decision not to marry, Ms McLaughlin said: “It was never an issue. I naively thought that the longer you were together as a couple the more rights you had.
“Our four children had their dad’s name; to me, it was just a ring and a bit of paper – the commitment was the same.”
The Supreme Court ruled that the terms of the current social security regulations, which denied Ms McLaughlin a pay-out, were at odds with Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
In 2017, it allowed a similar appeal relating to access to local Government pensions for surviving cohabitants in the case of Denise Brewster.
This latest case comes shortly after the Supreme Court ruled that opposite-sex and same-sex partners should have the same entitlement to Civil Partnerships following a challenge by Charles Keidan and Rebecca Steinfeld who argued that “civil partnerships are a modern social institution conferring almost identical legal rights and responsibilities as marriage”.
Last year Jakki Smith, an NHS worker, won a landmark battle for greater legal recognition for bereaved unmarried couples at the Court of Appeal. However, despite the occasional court victory, many cohabiting couples are left with nothing, following the death of their partner.
According to the Office for National Statistics, the number of cohabiting households has more than doubled from 1.5 million in 1996 to 3.3 million in 2017.
Surjit Verdi, a Partner with Palmers’ Family Law team, said that although the landmark ruling could now allow unmarried parents to receive benefits, the law still does not provide the same level of protection to cohabitees.
She explained: “There remains a myth that if you live together for long enough, then as a ‘common law spouse’ you will acquire the same rights and entitlements as a married person. This is simply not the case. Under law, there is no such thing as a ‘common law spouse’.
“Anyone who lives together, without marrying or entering into a Civil Partnership Agreement, is a ‘cohabitee’ and the law is the same, regardless of whether you have lived together for two months or 20 years.
“Putting in place a cohabitation agreement can give both parties some certainty in the event that one party dies or the relationship breaks down.
“However, a cohabitation agreement should not be relied on alone. It is particularly important that cohabiting couples have Wills in place as the rules of intestacy, which dictate the distribution of an estate where no Will has been made, do not take cohabitation into account.
“Where no Will has been made, the surviving partner can find themselves embroiled in time-consuming and costly legal processes, or even end up receiving nothing from the estate.”
To find out more about cohabitation agreements, please contact us.