18 Jul 2019

You will probably have noticed a decision yesterday on mainstream news services about the unmarried partner of an RAF Air Commodore winning the right to a potential survivor's benefit - even though she was still married to her former husband at the time of her partner's death.

The law of the case is simple enough, the rules of the statutory scheme provided that the partner could not receive a survivor's pension even though she had been with her partner for fifteen years and separated from her husband for seventeen as she was still legally married. 

Applying human rights law and public law concepts, the Court of Appeal said that this was "a sledgehammer to crack a nut". It was legitimate to have a rule in the scheme to make sure that there was parity between unmarried and married partners of deceased members. It was unreasonable for that rule to link to marital status rather than looking at the financial situation of the couple given that survivor's benefits are mainly there to help dependants deal with the huge financial wrench that the death of their partner can create. 

For day to day decision makers this case is a bit of an outlier as it concerns a rule that has the wrong focus – most death benefit disputes (of which there are 154 on the Pensions Ombudsman's website as at date of writing) tend to be around the application of a rule that asks the right questions but which involves a discretion.  

If you want a sense check of your current decision-making processes for death benefits or ill health decisions, please contact me or any member of the WBD Pensions and Rewards team and we'll be glad to run you through how you can get this right.