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Landmark ruling gives greater rights to cohabitees

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A landmark ruling provides greater recognition of the rights of unmarried couples.

Jakki Smith, an NHS worker, invoked human rights legislation when she was denied bereavement damages on her partner’s death.

John Bulloch, her partner of 16 years, a former prison governor, died as a result of medical negligence. A fixed sum of £12,980 is usually paid to a spouse, but the same rights did not apply to cohabiting couples.

She challenged the claim and this week, the Court of Appeal allowed her challenge against a High Court ruling dismissing it. Smith, 59, welcomed the ruling and hoped it would have a positive impact on the increasing number of cohabiting couples in the UK.

Teri Gauge-Klein, associate at Russell-Cooke, said: “The bereavement award, as provided for by the Fatal Accidents Act 1976, is often seen as unfair and outdated. It only applies to spouses, those in civil partnerships and the death of children. It was extended to civil partners in 2004 and government produced a draft bill in 2009 which was shelved.

“The Law Commission, Association of Personal Injury Lawyers (APIL) and many organisations have been campaigning for a change in the law for many years. Jakki Smith will not benefit financially from the decision as although she has obtained a declaration of incompatibility the court were acting within the present law when denying her claim. She can apply to the European Court of Human Rights for compensation.”

Gauge-Klein said that although this decision is a move in the right direction, if parliament does not act to change the law, it will be a shallow victory.

Helen Morrissey, personal finance specialist at Royal London, said: “The number of couples choosing to cohabit rather than marry has been on the rise for many years and so it is remarkable that the rights of couples who choose to live together are not more widely recognised.

“As it currently stands cohabiting couples can live together for many years and raise children together but if the worst were to happen and one partner dies, the surviving spouse would not be entitled to the same level of benefits as their married counterpart and could suffer extreme financial distress as a result. It is about time the rights of cohabiting couples were more widely recognised. But until then, those who choose to live together should ensure their wills are kept up-to-date to reflect their current circumstances.”

See’s Cohabiting couples: how to protect yourselves financially for more information.

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