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Some progress for unmarried couples but major pension pitfalls remain

Some progress for unmarried couples but major pension pitfalls remain

A man and woman check documents and make calculations

The government unlawfully discriminated against unmarried couples by refusing to allow claims for widowed parent's allowance in cases where the surviving partner was not married to, or the civil partner of, the deceased. 

The Supreme Court ruling on August 30 was in favour of an unmarried mother, Siobhan McLaughlin, from County Antrim in Northern Ireland. 

You can read more about the background to this case and the specific details involved in the Guardian and the Independent.

If you are feeling particularly brave, you can download a link to the Supreme Court judgment itself (or a summary of it) from the website.

This judgment will obviously be welcome to people who have been calling for stronger protection for unmarried couples and their children.

However there are some important caveats to be aware of.

  • Firstly, the widowed parent's allowance (WPA) was replaced in April 2017 by the Bereavement Support Payment and the judgment does not apply directly to this new benefit. However there will be pressure for the government to change the rules for this benefit or face a legal challenge along the same lines as this case.
  • Secondly, the judgment clearly turned on the purpose of the WPA in providing benefits specifically for children. The court recognised that children were being treated very differently depending on whether their parents were married and that this difference in treatment could not be justified.

This second caveat is important because it suggests that this judgment may not read directly across to the rules of occupational pension schemes that only pay survivors’ benefits to married couples or couples in a civil partnership.

This is particularly relevant to Prospect members because many of them, especially those working in the public sector, will be in traditional occupational pension schemes that do not pay survivors’ benefits to unmarried partners.

The Classic section of the civil service pension scheme, the default pension arrangement for people who joined the civil service before October 2002, does not pay survivors’ benefits in these circumstances.

It is longstanding Prospect policy to negotiate benefits in the Classic section of the civil service pension scheme for all partners, but the government has resisted this for many years.

Millions of people are members of pension schemes with similarly old-fashioned rules.

There is nothing in this Supreme Court judgment to give us confidence that we can challenge this situation legally or that gives us particular leverage in negotiating reforms.  

This blog is meant as a warning to Prospect members to:

  • check out the rules of the section(s) of your pension scheme to see what benefits are payable to whom and in what circumstances and
  • make sure that you and your family have appropriate plans in place to ensure everyone is protected whatever happens in the future.

Far too often Prospect reps are approached by the partners of members who have died unexpectedly who have been told that they are not entitled to any benefit under the rules of the pension scheme.

Unfortunately there is usually little or nothing that can be done about this after the event, so it’s very important to plan in advance.

Neil Walsh

Neil Walsh


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