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Landmark Ruling Grants Unmarried Widow Bereavement Benefits

Landmark Ruling Grants Unmarried Widow Bereavement Benefits

Unmarried Widow Bereavement Benefits

An unmarried mother of four has won a landmark Supreme Court case that could allow her to claim a Widowed Parent's Allowance (WPA) following the death of her partner of over 20 years.

When John Adams of Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland passed away in 2014, his partner Siobhan McLaughlin was unable to legally claim the benefit for their children – despite having lived with Mr. Adams for 23 years – as the couple were never married.

However, the Supreme Court has now ruled that the law governing the award of the WPA benefit promotes discrimination against children born out of wedlock, infringing their human rights.

Ms McLaughlin, who works in two jobs as a special needs classroom assistant and cleaner to provide for her family, said that the judgement was “just fantastic news for all those children that have been recognised now.”

The mother of four said that she hoped the ruling would help children born out of wedlock to “recognise that they are just as worthy as children born into wedlock,” while her legal representative speculated that the decision would benefit “thousands of children throughout the UK.”

Supreme Court president Baroness Hale affirmed that it was “difficult” to justify denying WPA benefits to families on the basis of a couple’s marital status, as “their needs, and more importantly, their children’s needs, are the same.”

Parliament not bound by court’s decision

The Supreme Court’s decision could pave the way for other unmarried couples with children across Britain to be entitled to the WPA benefit in the event that one parent dies.

However, while it puts pressure on Parliament, the court’s ruling does not have any necessary, binding effect on the legislature or the government – which may decide to continue with the existing policy regardless.

The Department of Work and Pensions has said that it will consider the court ruling, but underlined this discretion.

It advises potential claimants that current eligibility rules for bereavement benefits still stand, meaning that only widowed parents who had a legal marriage or civil partnership may apply. In addition, the deceased parent must have made sufficient National Insurance contributions and their family must be eligible for child benefits for a widow’s children to qualify for WPA.

The law in the UK differs from those in other European countries, where all children are offered social welfare support following the death of a parent, regardless of their parents’ marital status. Legal experts and politicians alike have called for the abolition of the marriage stipulation in recent years, with the House of Commons work and pensions select committee calling for all cohabiting couples to be eligible for the benefit in 2016.

Current law affects 2,000 families per year

The Childhood Bereavement Network (CBN) estimates that over 2,000 families are blocked from receiving bereavement benefits by this requirement every year, calling this “the double hit of one parent dying, and the other parent realising that they and the children aren’t eligible” for WPA.

Statistics indicate that over 3.3 million unmarried coupled currently live together across the UK, with 1.2 million of these couples having children.

CBN director Alison Penny said that the new ruling from the UK’s highest court “established a principle that bereaved children shouldn’t be disadvantaged because their parents weren’t married.”

She added that the charity would now “call on Parliament to see the way the wind is blowing and to apply this principle as soon as possible to the new benefit, in line with recommendations made over two years ago by the House of Commons work and pensions select committee.”

In its 2016 recommendations, the Parliamentary committee estimated that extending WPA eligibility to cover all cohabiting couples with children would cost £21.6m.

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