Supreme Court ruling on bereavement dispute highlights issues with cohabitation

The Supreme Court’s judgement in the case of Siobhan McLaughlin has once again highlighted the need for co-habiting couples to ensure that their legal affairs are in order. Ms McLaughlin’s long term partner and father of her children had died; her claim for widowed parent’s allowance was refused as they had not been married or in a civil partnership. 

She applied for judicial review of that decision. The Supreme Court made a declaration that the exclusion of all unmarried couples from the receipt of widowed parent’s allowance was incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. Lady Hale in delivering the decision said that “it is difficult indeed to see the justification of denying people and their children benefits, or paying them at 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.” It remains to be seen whether this finding will result in a change of the law.

This case once again brings into focus the rights of co-habiting couples. The co-habiting couple family is the fastest rising living arrangement in England and Wales is the cohabiting couple family; this has more than doubled from 1.5 million families in 1996 to 3.3 million families in 2017*. Cohabitation has its advantages but it certainly doesn’t provide legal protection. Due to a lack of public awareness, there is, the perhaps, mistaken belief, that a “common law” spouse has the same entitlement as a married spouse or civil partner.

We have seen several cases recently where the surviving cohabitee has received nothing from the estate and the beneficiaries have been the children from a previous relationship who don’t get on with the surviving cohabitee. This has caused family disharmony as highlighted in an earlier article.

Co-habiting couples should seek legal advice to ensure that their wishes are met and that each party is looked after in the event of the death of one of the parties. The importance of wills cannot be underestimated and to avoid unnecessary difficulty, we recommend speaking to a specialist wills and estate planning solicitor for further information.

ONS number of families in the UK continues to grow, with cohabiting couple families growing the fastest

Disclaimer: This document does not present a complete or comprehensive statement of the law, nor does it constitute legal advice. It is intended only to highlight issues that may be of interest to clients of BLM. Specialist legal advice should always be sought in any particular case.

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