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Woman wins Supreme Court battle for survivor’s pension


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.”



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There are 6 comments at the moment, we would love to hear your opinion too.

  1. Natural Justice is served on this occasion but quis solvit?

  2. My fianceè passed away suddenly in april 2010. I lost everything because we were not married. This will make a massive difference to lots of couples who live together. Just because they are not married it does not mean their love and commitment is a true one

  3. Neil F Liversidge 8th February 2017 at 3:38 pm

    Good result.

  4. Why England and Wales don’t recognise common law spouses is beyond me they have had legal status in Scotland since 1983

  5. It does make you wonder why the trustee’s (at taxpayers expense) appealed the high court decision that she was eligible?

  6. I saw this first thing yesterday morning and have seen the full judgement by LORD KERR: (with whom Lady Hale, Lord Wilson, Lord Reed and Lord Dyson agree).

    The whole thing runs to 26 pages with 68 paragraphs, but regrettable misses some important points.

    Mr McMullan didn’t complete an expression of wish. If he had of done all this legal hoop la could have been avoided. This yet again points to how badly pension members are served by the big consultancies – and we all know who they are. Members are invariably treated as an inconvenience. These firms prefer to just engage with the firm (usually the FD) and provide scant service to the members. How hard would it have been to ensure that a phone call follow up or an annual reminder with the valuation statement, reminding members of the importance of an expression of wish. Surely their multi thousand pound fees could run to a somewhat better member engagement?

    Then of course there is the unanswerable conundrum of why people decide to live together and commit to joint assets for prolonged periods without getting married. Apart from this there are also other ramifications – IHT for one. Perhaps I’m old fashioned but there no longer seems to be any stigma in breeding bastards.

    The ramifications of this judgement will do no favours to an already humungous unfunded debt liability and the full ramifications are yet to be felt.

    Perhaps it would have been better if the judgement didn’t go quite this far, but nevertheless required the Pension Consultant and/or the employer to make a discretionary settlement as a result of their less than perfect administration.

    This is the first significant pension judgement. The next one on the agenda concerns Brexit. When we finally leave the EU, UK ex-pat pensioners in the EU may well find that that State Pension indexation will cease. After all ex-pats in (say) Australia or Canada don’t get indexation, those in Europe do because we are in the EU. Therefore the Commonwealth, US or other ex-pats would have a legitimate case if the European ex-pats continued to get indexation after we leave.

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