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10 February 2017 | Comment | Article by Abigail Flanagan

Landmark Court ruling on entitlement to widow pension

The Supreme Court has recently ruled that a lady who had been cohabiting with her long-term partner was entitled to payments from his occupational pension, following his sudden death two days after their engagement in 2009. The couple had been living together for over 10 years at the time of his death.

Mr McMullan had worked for the Northern Ireland public transport service for approximately 15 years prior to his death and had been paying into an occupational pension scheme. If Mr McMullan and Ms Brewster had been married then Ms Brewster would have automatically been entitled to payments from his pension scheme.

However, co-habiting partners were only entitled to the payments if she had specifically been nominated to receive the payments on a form for that purpose. Whilst Ms Brewster thought that Mr McMullan had completed the form, the Committee responsible for administering the pension scheme alleged that it had not received a nomination form. Accordingly, the scheme had refused to pay Ms Brewster her survivor’s pension.

In a hard-fought case which reached the Supreme Court, the Supreme Court justices unanimously held that Ms Brewster was entitled to receive payments under the pension scheme. They stated that the nomination form was “unlawful discrimination”, stating that the key to entitlement to payment in the event that one co-habiting partner dies is that the relevant parties had lived together for a sufficiently long period and that one was financially dependent upon the other or that they were financially interdependent.

This ruling could potentially have far-reaching implications on the rights of co-habiting couples who have been paying into a public sector pension scheme. However, the extent to which it will make dramatic changes to the way in which public sector employers run these schemes remains to be seen.

Hugh James provides a variety of advice in relation to pension schemes. Should you require independent financial advice regarding your pension and ensuring that it has been set up correctly, please contact David Hulse, Head of Department on 0808 501 6935. Alternatively, Abigail Flanagan of our Pension Disputes Team (02920 660 589) would be happy to assist with any queries or concerns you may have in relation to the Pension Scheme itself.

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Author bio

Abigail Flanagan joined the dispute resolution team in 2005 and became a Partner in May 2022. Abbie specialises in professional negligence claims (mainly against solicitors, accountancy practitioners and other finance professionals), general commercial litigation matters (including warranty, contractual and director/shareholder disputes) and insolvency matters.

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