A Victory for Unmarried Cohabiting Couples in a Time of Horrifyingly Discriminatory Proposals

for 23, victory for cohab in UK

These are frightening times for people who are not married and their children, and even for people who are married but no longer want to be. Lawmakers and political leaders in the US and elsewhere are busy proposing puritanical laws that penalize people for the sin of living single.

Here is just a small sampling:

  • In Brazil, a group of conservative politicians is proposing that married women should be able to retire years before single women. They hope that the law will encourage women to get married and have children. (Here’s an article, in Portuguese.)
  • In Texas, State Representative Matt Krause (R) filed two bills intended to make it harder for couples to divorce. He wants to bring back the requirement of proving fault, such as abandonment or adultery. He believes that such a requirement “reinforces the sanctity of marriage.”
  • In Tennessee, Representative Terri Lynn Weaver (R) wants to repeal statute TCA 68-3-306, but not to make it less sexist: “A child born to a married woman as a result of artificial insemination, with the consent of the married woman’s husband, is deemed to be the legitimate child of the husband and wife.” The repeal of the law, it has been suggested, would classify babies born by artificial insemination as illegitimate. A Tennessee attorney said, “Clearly, the legislative intention…is to stop lesbian couples from having the same automatic recognition of their parent-child relationships that opposite-sex couples have.” It doesn’t sound so promising for single parents, either.
  • Donald Trump’s proposed tax plan would result in tax increases for many single parents, who would be hit harder than everyone else. As Business Insider explained, “Under the current law, a single parent with one child would receive $17,400 in deductions — two personal exemptions worth $8,100, plus the $9,300 head of household deduction — compared with the flat $15,000 deduction under Trump’s plan. That loss of income becomes starker with each child added to the picture. A single parent with three children is looking at over $10,000 lost deductions under Trump’s plan — $25,500, compared with $15,000.”

Amidst all these horrifying proposals, there is one victory. In the UK, unmarried cohabiting couples just won a Supreme Court case that is being described as a landmark decision.

Denise Brewster and her partner Lenny McMullan had been living together, unmarried, for ten years when McMullan died. He had been paying into a local government pension plan for 15 years. If he and Brewster had been married, Brewster would have automatically received a survivor’s pension. But because they were not married, Brewster got nothing.

She brought her case to the appropriate local governmental committee, where it was turned down. She turned next to the High Court of Northern Ireland, where her legal challenge was allowed. But then it was overturned by the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal. At the highest level, though, the Supreme Court of the UK, Brewster emerged victorious.

Prior to the Supreme Court ruling, there had been an option for unmarried cohabiting couples to be eligible for a survivor’s pension. To quality, they had to meet a set of criteria, and submit an opt-in form signed by both partners. Brewster and McMullan met all the criteria, but they never submitted the opt-in form.

Brewster’s attorney argued that “the opt-in nomination rule breached the European Convention on Human Rights. These prohibit discrimination in the way human rights are applied and also protect a person’s right to property and the peaceful enjoyment of possessions.”

The case is considered a landmark ruling because it could mean that other benefits accorded only to married couples could also be challenged. For example, unmarried couples in the UK do not have automatic inheritance rights if one partner dies. They are also ineligible for bereavement benefits. Those laws and others like them could change, ultimately erasing the distinction between married and unmarried cohabiting couples.

Meanwhile, unmarried couples in other places, and solo singles in the UK and the US, remain second class citizens. They pay into pension plans such as Social Security, but when they die, they cannot give the benefits they earned to anyone else, and no one else can give their benefits to them.

[Notes: (1) Thanks to Katherine Woulfe, Lauren Williams, and other members of the Community of Single People for the heads-up about these examples. (2) The opinions expressed here do not represent the official positions of Unmarried Equality. (3) The comment option on the UE website has been invaded by spammers, so I have disabled comments for now. I’ll post all these blog posts at the UE Facebook page; please join our discussions there. (4) For links to previous columns, click here.]

bella-ocean-backgr-347-dpi-smaller About the Author: Bella DePaulo (PhD, Harvard), a long-time member of Unmarried Equality, is the author of  How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century and Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. She writes the “Living Single” blog for Psychology Today and the “Single at Heart” blog for Psych Central. Visit her website at www.BellaDePaulo.com.

About Bella DePaulo