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Nov 21

Getting a pension health check

Written by Ellie Foster
Legal Director

DDI: 01423 726621
E: ellie.foster@raworths.co.uk

A recent decision by the Pensions Ombudsman has again highlighted the sometimes precarious financial position occupied by cohabiting couples and their relative lack of rights compared to their married counterparts.

In the case in question, the claimant (known as ‘Ms R’) was the unmarried partner of a member of a private pension scheme.  They had been in a relationship for 15 years.  The pension scheme rules provided for a spouse’s pension to be paid, on the death of the member after retirement, to a legal spouse or long term ‘Dependent Partner’, the latter including a person nominated by the member.

When her partner died, Ms R applied to the pension scheme for a spouse’s pension. This was refused as:

  • she was not legally married to the member; and
  • there was no record that the scheme held a nomination form completed by the member to pay death benefits to her.

Thus, she did not qualify as a Dependent Partner.

Ms R complained to the Pension Ombudsman, arguing that the trustees of the scheme had wrongly refused her claim following an earlier Supreme Court decision (‘the Brewster case’) in similar circumstances and this amounted to discrimination under the Human Rights Act 1998. In particular she argued that the requirements of the scheme were unfair for unmarried couples as, in contrast, married couples did not have to be living together, did not have to be in an exclusive long term relationship and the survivor’s pension could be paid to a spouse automatically without a nomination form.

However, Ms R’s claim was dismissed. The Brewster case related to a public sector pension scheme not, as for Ms R, a private pension scheme. She had not been discriminated against as her status as an unmarried partner was not a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010. The trustees has therefore acted correctly when declining her request for a spouse’s pension.

This case is a salutatory reminder, for cohabiting couples in particular, to check that any required nomination forms with pension schemes and insurance companies are completed and remain up to date.  This simple financial health check can ensure that any available benefits in the unfortunate event of a partner’s death will be paid in accordance with their wishes and can help to avoid further distress and financial difficulties.

Ellie Foster is a Legal Director in Raworths’ Family Team and she can be contacted on 01423 566666 or email ellie.foster@raworths.co.uk

Published 8 November 2021

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