Last month, the Supreme Court (sitting in Northern Ireland) handed down the judgment of granting the right to Widowed Parent’s Allowance (WPA) to an unmarried mother-of-four, Siobhan McLaughlin, whose partner of 23 years – and father of her children – passed away.
Melinda Giles takes a closer look at this landmark case and the implications it could have on the future of the rights of unmarried couples if one dies and leaves children behind.
A Significant Ruling for Unmarried Couples
The headlines on the day of this judgment made much of the fact that this was a further step forward for cohabiting couples with children towards gaining equal status to married couples.
There was some backlash from those who believe that to gain the rights of a married couple then you should choose to marry, but this case was not about the broader rights you gain from marriage. At the heart of the case were the children who have lost one parent who was financially responsible for them at the time of his death.
Currently, we’re still awaiting the response from the government in relation to the judgment, as the decision made in court merely informs the government that the current provision is unlawful. It is now for the government to adjust the legislative provisions that currently provide for WPA.
What is Widowed Parent’s Allowance?
Widowed Parent’s Allowance was originally a non-means tested benefit payable to the surviving parent where the other partner dies whilst under the age of receiving a state pension. It was changed to a different allowance in 2017, but the case in question dealt with a period of time prior to this change.
The idea of WPA is to financially support the surviving parent in raising their children and is only payable whilst the children are minors. It is clearly therefore payable for the benefit of the children, and the intention is to replace the deceased parent’s financial support.
It has never been the case that anyone claiming this has had to prove the level of financial support that they have lost – the whole point is that it is non-means tested and payable to every person in that situation. However, the exception to this – as the existence of this case illustrates – are unmarried couples with children.
What Are the Potential Implications of this Case?
This particular case focussed on a couple who had a long, stable and happy cohabiting relationship with four children. However, what we don’t yet know is how the ramifications of this case will unfold for other unmarried couples if one dies. Some potentially affected scenarios may include:
- Couples that were divorced and were receiving child maintenance from the deceased.
- Mothers who receive child maintenance from a father who is married to someone else.
If this benefit exists then it must treat all children fairly, otherwise we are discriminating against those children and those parents. To do otherwise suggests that they are not worthy of the same recognition as we give to a child living within a household containing traditionally married parents.
In some ways, we can see that Widowed Parent’s Allowance is a leftover from the days when a married, stay-at-home mother was left surviving the death of her husband, the breadwinner and provider. It could be argued that there are more families outside this scenario now than within it.
The irony is, of course, that in the majority of cases where someone’s spouse dies, that surviving parent will also be the person to receive any life insurance payment, pension or other assets from the death of the deceased. Would it not make sense to extend this same logic to an allowance that financially supports the children of unmarried couples if one dies?
Unmarried with Children?
If you’re unmarried with children, our Family Law solicitors in Essex can provide you with expert advice on your legal rights and options in the unfortunate event either parent passes away. From allowance entitlements after death to advice on planning Wills and Inheritance, we can make sure you’re prepared for any emotionally difficult scenarios your family may face.
To reach us for a consultation, please call us on 01702 477106, send us an email or visit us in person at one of our three offices in Leigh-on-Sea and Rochford. You can also discover more about our services relating to Cohabitation and Unmarried Couples on our website.