In a landmark ruling for unmarried couples, the Supreme Court has ruled that a woman, who was not married or in a civil partnership with her children’s father, should not have been denied a widowed parent’s allowance.
It’s a major decision both for Siobhan McLaughlin, 46, who has been fighting since 2004 for her right to bereavement benefits, and for the rocketing number of cohabiting but unmarried couples in the UK – in 2017, it was identified as the fastest-growing type of family, at 3.3 million couples.
Although McLaughlin, from Co Antrim, had been with her partner John Adams for 23 years and had four children with him, when he died of cancer in 2014 she was refused both a bereavement payment and benefits of up to £117 per week on the basis that they were unmarried. Essentially, their relationship was unrecognised by law.
It may seem incredibly antiquated, as families and relationships come in more and more shapes and sizes, but unmarried couples who live together are at all kinds of legal risk if one of them passes away, and many of them are unaware of the issues until the worst happens
The ruling that denying McLaughlin this aid was illegal passed by a majority of four to one in the Supreme Court, after an earlier hearing in Belfast when a court concluded that the case amounted to discrimination against children born outside of wedlock.
It may seem incredibly antiquated, as families and relationships come in more and more shapes and sizes, but unmarried couples who live together are at all kinds of legal risk if one of them passes away, and many of them are unaware of the issues until the worst happens.
If someone dies without having a will, the law would direct their assets towards a married spouse, whereas an unmarried but cohabiting partner would be skipped over in favour of blood relatives.
McLaughlin, a special-needs teaching assistant, has spoken about how she was forced to take on extra cleaning work in the evenings in order to support her four children, Rebecca, 15, Billy, 16, Lisa, 21, and Stuart, 23. It is estimated that the benefit she was refused totals around £40,000, but she has stated that she is less interested in a payout and more concerned that other unmarried couples in her position are made aware of their economic vulnerability.
Prior to the Belfast hearing, McLaughlin said: “It is heartbreaking to even contemplate the difference this could have made. It might just have made life slightly easier.”
It is a widely believed myth that common-law marriage rights will apply to unmarried but cohabiting partners, and recent reports showed an increase in so-called “death-bed” wedding ceremonies. It is part of an ongoing debate that includes the campaign for heterosexual couples to be allowed civil partnerships. Another Supreme Court ruling this summer said that restricting civil partnerships to same-sex couples is discriminatory, and both these decisions will put pressure on the government to change the law.
The ruling was announced by Lady Hale, who said: “The allowance exists because of the responsibilities of the deceased and the survivor towards their children. Those responsibilities are the same whether or not they are married to or in a civil partnership with one another."