An unmarried mother of four has won a landmark case at the UK Supreme Court, which could allow her to claim bereavement benefits.
The court ruled by a majority of four to one in favour of Siobhan McLaughlin, a widow and mother of four, who was refused Bereavement Payment and Widowed Parent’s Allowance because she was married to her partner of 23 years.
The Supreme Court ruled that the government’s decision to deny bereavement benefits to Miss McLaughlin was illegal.
The landmark decision could pressure ministers to change the law to allow unmarried couples to receive bereavement benefits if their partner passes away.
Miss McLaughlin, from County Antrim in Northern Ireland, initially challenged the decision in the High Court in Belfast and won. However, this decision was later overturned by the Court of Appeal.
The Supreme Court ruled that the decision to deny Miss McLaughlin access to bereavement benefits was in breach of human rights law.
Miss McLaughlin’s partner, John Adams, died from cancer on 28 January 2014. He had made sufficient National Insurance contributions for Miss McLaughlin to claim Bereavement Benefit, which is a one-off payment of £2,000, and Widowed Parent’s Allowance of £117 a week.
However, she was refused payment because they were not married or in a civil partnership.
Lady Hale, president of the Supreme Court, explains in her ruling: “Where means-tested benefits are concerned, it is difficult indeed to see the justification for denying people and their children benefits, or paying them a lower rate of benefit, simply because the adults are not married to one another. Their needs, and more importantly their children’s needs, are the same.”
Responding to the ruling, a spokesperson for the Department for Work and Pensions comments: “We will consider the court’s ruling carefully. Widowed Parent’s Allowance was a contributory benefit, and it has always been the case that inheritable benefits derived from another person’s contributions should be based on the concept of legal marriage or civil partnership.”
The spokesperson was keen to add that the ruling does not change the current eligibility rules for receiving bereavement benefits, which are paid only to people who are married or in a civil partnership.
The rise of cohabiting families
The number of cohabiting families in the UK rose from 1.5 million in 1996 to 3.3 million in 2017, according to the Office for National Statistics.
Pensions provider Royal London estimates that cohabiting couples could be missing out on as much as £82 million a year in bereavement benefits.
Helen Morrissey, spokesperson at Royal London, says today’s decision will hopefully mark the “beginning of the end of decades of injustice faced by cohabiting couples”.
She says: “Cohabitees can live together for many years, raise children together and pay exactly the same amount of National Insurance Contributions (NICs) as their married counterparts – and yet when one dies they can find themselves being treated very differently. The government must recognise the growing trend towards cohabitation.”
Rachael Griffin, tax and financial planning expert at Quilter, adds: “High profile court cases surrounding cohabitees is becoming an increasing occurrence and not a trend that the government should be applauding.
“This most recent case serves as a stark reminder that marriage is heavily engrained in our current benefit and tax systems. This structure, however, does not marry to current trends.”
She describes this as a “worrying state of affairs” and one that merits serious examination by the government.
“Judgements like these increase the pressure on the government to carefully look inheritance and tax rights to ensure they reflect modern family units,” she adds.