Bereavement rights for cohabiting couples

Belfast woman wins landmark case

Siobhan McLoughlin, from Belfast, had lived together with her partner John Adams for 23 years when he passed away in 2014. Together they had four children, aged 19, 17, 13 and 11 at the time of their father’s death.

As Adams had supported her during the time they lived together, McLoughlin decided to apply for bereavement payment and widowed parent’s allowance (WPA) to help with living costs for her and the children. Unfortunately, her claim was refused by the Northern Ireland Department of Communities as both bereavement payment and WPA are only available to partners who are married or in a civil partnership.

What followed was a lengthy process which saw the High Court and the Court of Appeal side with the government. However, when the case came to the Supreme Court, it was ruled that the government had breached McLoughlin’s rights under the European Convention of Human Rights.

Lady Hale, the current President of the Supreme Court of the UK, delivered the majority of a four-to-one decision and noted that the children in this case were disadvantaged due to how the UK handles bereavement benefits. She emphasised that the primary consideration should be the interests of the children.

Will this case change the law?

Although this case relates to Northern Ireland, the decision is likely to affect the rest of the UK in the future. In the meantime, the Department for Work and Pensions has stated that the ruling doesn’t change the current eligibility rules for receiving bereavement benefits, meaning the benefits are paid only to people who are married or in a civil partnership.

The upshot of this is, the ruling will not immediately change the situation for other bereaved partners in the UK who have been refused benefits. The justices of the Supreme Court reached their decision only after carefully considering McLoughlin’s specific circumstances, such as the fact that Adams had contributed enough National Insurance during his life for his partner to be eligible for the benefit had they been married.

The Childhood Bereavement Network estimates that around 2,000 families a year face issues similar to what McLoughlin has been dealing with. It’s now up to Parliament to decide if the system should be changed to reflect modern family structures. In 2017 there were over 1.2 million cohabiting couple families with dependent children in the UK, and this type of family dynamic is becoming more common every year. Unless the law is changed, many grieving partners and their children will have to go through the stressful process of taking their case to court if they want bereavement benefits. For some people, this may just prove too difficult.

Margaret Heathcote, Chair of Resolution – an association of over 6,500 Family Law professionals – commented after the ruling:

“Resolution has long called for reform of the law to fairly address cohabitants’ needs on the death of a partner, and with 80% of the public agreeing that cohabiting couples need greater legal protection, the government must act now to put in place at a minimum basic rights for these couples.”

Foys Solicitors – your local Family Law experts

At Foys Solicitors, we understand that every relationship is different, and that marriage does not suit everyone. However, if you are concerned about how your current relationship situation might affect your family in the future, call us today. Our solicitors specialising in all aspects of Family Law can advise you on any legal concerns surrounding cohabitation, marriage and civil partnerships.

For advice on Family Law, bereavement benefits and more, contact your local Foys Solicitors office:

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