A Northern Ireland woman has won a Supreme Court appeal to receive a survivor’s pension following the death of her long-term partner.
Denise Brewster lived with her partner William Leonard McMullan for around 10 years up to December 2009.
On Christmas Eve that year the couple became engaged, but McMullan died two days later.
At the time of his death, McMullan worked for public transport operator Translink, which had employed him for 15 years. Throughout that time he had paid into the Local Government Pension Scheme.
Brewster believed McMullan had completed a form nominating her as eligible for a survivor’s pension but the Northern Ireland Local Government Officers’ Superannuation Committee said it did not receive the form and so refused to pay her the pension.
Brewster was successful in a High Court judicial review of the committee’s decision but the Court of Appeal later overturned this.
No inheritance assumptions
Under local government regulations from 2009, “unmarried co-habiting” partners must be nominated by their pension scheme member partner to be eligible for a survivor’s pension. They must also show they have lived together for two years before the date the nomination form was submitted to the pension scheme and two years before the date of death.
As a result of the High Court decision in Brewster’s case, the equivalent regulations in England and Wales, and Scotland were changed to take out the nomination requirement.
When Brewster became aware of that change she applied to the Court of Appeal for her appeal to be reopened. It refused and so she appealed to the Supreme Court which allowed the appeal.
Responding to the decision, Old Mutual Wealth pension expert Jon Greer says the message for both defined benefit and defined contribution pension holders is not to make any assumption about who will inherit their pension when they die.
He adds: “Following this judgement trustees may be prompted to review their eligibility requirements for survivor’s pensions. However, ordinarily where a scheme offers a survivor’s pension to someone who is not a spouse or civil partner the death grant is given at the absolute discretion of the trustees whether or not a nomination had been made by the member.”
Former pensions minister and Royal London policy director Steve Webb says: “It is totally unacceptable for cohabiting couples to be treated as second class citizens. With more than six million people living together as couples and the numbers rising every year, this is an issue that needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. We need pension scheme rules which reflect the world we live in today, and not the world of 50 years ago.”