The benefits punishing kids if their parents don't marry

Children whose parents don’t marry have less protection than those who do. Felicity Hannah sheds light on a little known financial prejudice

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The Independent Online

It’s Children’s Grief Awareness Week, dedicated to raising awareness of and support for young people who have faced loss. It’s also a week to campaign for the security of children who have been left without the financial support of a parent.

For many children, the UK provides a vital safety net if the worst happens. When a parent dies leaving dependent children, the other parent can usually qualify for Widowed Parent Allowance. The amount the surviving parent receives depends on the late partner’s National Insurance contributions but it can be as much as £112.55 a week for as long as there’s a dependent child at home.

At least, that’s the case for some children, the ones whose parents had married or entered into a civil partnership. Children whose parents chose not to marry or who had not yet got around to it will not receive a penny, no matter how much their parents had paid in National Insurance.

With growing numbers of people raising children outside of marriage, that means that this rule is leaving increasing numbers of youngsters without support.

Double pain

The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show that in 2016 48 per cent of babies born were born to parents who were not married or in a civil partnership.  Around 60 per cent of those births will be to parents who live together, which the ONS says is consistent with the increasing number of couples choosing to cohabit rather than wed. 

Some of those couples may go on to marry, but the Childhood Bereavement Network says that one in five parents raising children will be unable to claim bereavement benefits if their long-term partner died, because they had not formalised their relationship.

That means that each year more than 2,000 families face the double pain of losing a parent and then discovering they are not eligible for bereavement benefits, even if they have lived together for many years.

Alison Penny, coordinator at the Childhood Bereavement Network says this is fundamentally unfair. “The higher rate of bereavement benefit currently paid to those with children is in recognition of the costs emotional, practical and financial of bringing up children when a partner has died,” she explains. 

“Children themselves have no influence over whether their parents are married or not, so it seems harsh to deprive some of financial support following a parent’s death based on their parents’ marital status.”

The Family Test

It’s not just charities demanding change. Even the Department for Work and Pension’s Social Security Advisory Committee has expressed concern. In a report into reforms to bereavement payments it urged the Government to bring unmarried parents into the scope of the benefit.

After all, cohabiting parents meet the Family Test – a set of criteria used by the state to describe families for the purposes of policy and for streamlining other benefits. However, in this instance it is not used.

“While we acknowledge that there are considerable practical challenges associated with extending entitlement to unmarried couples, awarding Bereavement Support Payment only to those who lose a spouse or civil partner appears hard to reconcile with the definition of family adopted by the Government in the Family Test and the position adopted within other benefits,” the report concluded.

The restrictions have even been successfully challenged in court. Citizens Advice Northern Ireland has been supporting Siobhan McLaughlin, a bereaved mother of four, as she sought a judicial review of the law that prevented her and her children from claiming bereavement benefits as she was not married to her partner of 23 years.

The judge found that penalising children for their parents’ decision not to marry was a breach of their human rights. Ms McLaughlin said: "When my partner of 23 years and father of our four children, John, passed away from cancer, I was devastated. I was totally shocked to discover that our children would lose out on bereavement benefits because we weren't married, even though we have lived together as a family unit for such a long time.”

It had seemed that the finding would ensure children across the United Kingdom would be able to receive support via their surviving parent’s Widowed Parent Allowance. However, that decision was appealed and Ms McLaughlin is now awaiting the new decision.

Changing terms

The UK’s bereavement benefits are heading for change next year. The DWP is planning to do away with the current system in favour of a simpler Bereavement Support System. 

Already there is some controversy about what that new support might look like, but the DWP has made one thing clear – unmarried parents will still not qualify for the support reserved for married couples.

One possible reason for the Government’s reticence is the cost. The Childhood Bereavement Network estimates that 21 per cent more parents would be eligible for bereavement benefits if the rules were extended to cohabiting couples with dependent children together. Under the planned new system being introduced next year, it estimates extending the support would cost around £21.6m a year.

That’s not the kind of cost to the public purse that can just be dismissed. However, nor can the financial distress caused to bereaved families who find themselves without the state support that’s extended to others.

People may not marry for all sorts of reasons – principles, finances, disinclination, a simple lack of organisation – but that decision can leave a young family an average of £28,000 (and up to £91,000) over their family’s childhood.

“Unmarried partners are often in a worse position financially than those who were married: they may be ineligible for death benefits or pensions. If the person died without making a will, unmarried partners don’t inherit anything automatically,” adds Ms Penny. 

There’s no stigma to being a child of unwed parents anymore, it’s the norm. However, for the UK Government, it’s still a reason to withhold substantial financial support when children need it most.

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