THE UK GOVERNMENT’S Department of Work and Pensions has announced that, from 9 February, cohabiting parents will be able to claim bereavement benefits to help them bring up dependent children.

Until now, around 1,800 parents a year have missed out on these payments because they were living with but not married to or in a civil partnership with their partner when they died. Families bereaved as long ago as 2001 stand to be eligible for back payments going back to 30 August 2018. The benefits are based on National Insurance (NI) contributions of the partner who died.

Following news released by the Office of National Statistics that shows for the first time ever, more babies were born in the UK last year to parents not married or in a civil partnership, this means that thousands of bereaved children have been missing out on this vital support, currently worth £9,800.

In August 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that it was unlawful to deny the old-style Widowed Parent’s Allowance (WPA) to families where the parents had been cohabiting before one of them died, and the High Court made the same ruling in relation to the new-style Bereavement Support Payment (BSP) in February 2020.

The families who brought these cases used the Human Rights Act to challenge the denial of this support to cohabiting parents. The courts found the policy was a breach of their human rights, but the rules on who is entitled to the support are set out in primary legislation and so it was for Parliament and the Government to right the wrong before families could receive any support.

Four and a half years after the UK Supreme Court judgment, the Government introduced a Remedial Order to correct the injustice. The Remedial Order changes the criteria so that, going forward, newly bereaved cohabiting parents can claim on behalf of their grieving children.

Retrospective payments

Families who were previously unable to claim these benefits, some of them bereaved as long ago as 2001, will also be able to make a new claim for retrospective payments if they were still eligible on or after 30 August 2018. The Childhood Bereavement Network (CBN) estimates that this could be up to 21,000 families.

The situation for people making a retrospective claim for Widowed Parent’s Allowance is complex. Charities are waiting for further guidance from Government about how back payments will interact with previous and future tax, benefits and tax credits. As there is a 12-month window, families may want to delay making a retrospective application until they have all the information they need, seeking independent welfare benefits advice for their specific circumstances before making a claim.

Since 2011, The Childhood Bereavement Network (CBN) has coordinated a campaign with other charities including WAY Widowed and Young, Child Poverty Action Group, Low Incomes Tax Reform Group, Quaker Social Action and many others, to extend eligibility to cohabiting families with children.

Alison Penny, CBN Director said: “After such a long campaign, it is almost incredible that we are finally at the stage of cohabiting families being able to claim this benefit. They will no longer face the double blow of being refused financial support following the death of their mum or dad, simply because they weren’t married. We are pleased too that over 20,000 families bereaved as far back as 2001 who were previously denied these benefits will be eligible for back payments to 30 August 2018.

“As well as providing these families with crucial financial support, these changes also send an important message to bereaved children and young people across the country that they matter, whatever their parents’ marital status. As a society, it’s vital that we support all bereaved children, whatever their circumstances.”

Georgia Elms, Campaign Ambassador for WAY Widowed and Young, said: “We are sad that it has taken so long to get to this point. Many of the families who will now be eligible for back payments have endured years of financial hardship and lack of recognition as they waited for these changes.

“We want to say a huge thank you to the brave parents who brought the cases on behalf of affected bereaved families and who shared their stories over the many years to highlight this injustice, as well as their legal teams and everyone who has signed petitions, written to their MPs and worked tirelessly over more than a decade to help make this change happen.

Siobhan McLaughlin, who successfully challenged the denial of bereavement benefits following the death of John, her partner of 23 years, leading to a landmark judgment at the Supreme Court, said: “I am delighted beyond my wildest dreams that the Government has finally taken the steps needed to right this injustice and am so proud of everyone who played a role in making that happen.

“We all played our part for all of those children who have had the misfortune to have lost a parent and who weren’t able to claim support for all those years. Hopefully, we have made life a little easier for thousands of bereaved families. And I will be able to look my four children in the eye and say, ‘I tried to ease your hurt’.”

The charities say that reaching eligible families with news of the changes will be crucial. Those eligible for a back payment will have a 12-month window within which to get the full amount they are entitled to.

Claire Hall, solicitor at Child Poverty Action Group, said: “In recognition of the length of time it has taken for these welcome changes to be introduced since the courts first recognised this breach of families’ rights, we would like to see Government using data it holds to identify those who may be eligible for payments and proactively contacting those families, alongside a communications campaign to make sure that all eligible families hear about the changes.

“It is essential that high-quality information is provided about how to claim and what impact back payments may have on families’ wider financial position. Government must be particularly clear in communications to those whose back payments of Widowed Parent’s Allowance will have implications for their tax, tax credits and social security benefits. If in doubt, people should seek advice to understand how it applies in their individual circumstances before claiming.”

The Scottish Government does not have control over the Bereavement Support Payment, but it does provide additional support in the form of Funeral Support Payment (help towards the cost of a funeral for those on a on low income) and Guardian’s Allowance (for those bringing up a child whose parents have died or sometimes for bringing up a child who has one surviving parent). More details here.

* Source: Childhood Bereavement Network