Jonathan Stapleton asks if it is time to extend pensions equality to cohabiting couples
The Supreme Court's ruling that an exemption in the Equality Act - which allows schemes to exclude same-sex partners from spousal benefits accrued before December 2005 - is discriminatory and breaches EU laws comes not before time.
Following the Walker vs Innospec case, any defined benefit (DB) scheme that currently pays out less in benefits to the surviving partners of a same-sex marriage or civil partnership based on this exemption will have to rectify this immediately.
But this ruling should only affect a reasonably limited number of schemes as only around a third of private sector DB schemes relied on this exemption - and, while there will undoubtedly be administrative and cost issues involved in solving this issue, this should present few challenges to most schemes.
However, the ruling could open a can of worms. It is, after all, not unlawful for private sector DB schemes to treat unmarried partners differently from spouses or civil partners - something that was highlighted following the Brewster ruling earlier this year.
The term ‘common law spouse' is widely used but has no legal meaning - and many members are surprised to learn their pension scheme only pays a survivor's pension to a spouse or to those in a civil partnership, leaving a large number of unmarried partners with nothing on death or relying on trustee discretion.
According to the Office for National Statistics, cohabiting couple families were the fastest growing family type between 1996 and 2016, more than doubling from 1.5 million families to 3.3 million families.
Treating those in marriage or civil partnerships differently to cohabiting couples is looking increasingly out of touch in today's world.
Trying to solve some of these issues, however, will be far from easy - particularly when verifying the existence of these relationships comes without the easy-to-check certainty of a marriage or civil partnership document.
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