Cohabitees Have the Same Rights as Married Couples – No They Don’t

It is a common misapprehension that the legal position of those who live together is nowadays almost identical to that of married couples. A woman who lived for 15 years with a senior RAF officer before his sudden death found out how wrong that assumption is when she was refused entitlement to his £48,000-a-year pension and death in service benefits worth £400,000.

The woman had lived as the air commodore’s wife and had attended official dinners and opened fetes as his consort before his death from a heart attack. She wore his engagement and wedding rings; however, she never married him and, despite their long separation, had never divorced her husband.

Under armed forces rules, she was not recognised as the commodore’s ‘widow’ and benefits were paid not to her, but to his parents and siblings. As a result, she was left in straitened circumstances. The Service Personnel Veterans Agency’s refusal to recognise her claims was later upheld by the Pensions Ombudsman.

Challenging that decision at the High Court, her lawyers argued that, in treating her less favourably than a single person, the agency had violated her human rights. In dismissing her challenge, however, the Court noted that, as an already married woman, she had never been free to marry the commodore. Although the result of the case might seem harsh, the Court found that the service pension rules were clear and that she had suffered no unlawful discrimination.