The Pensions Ombudsman has ruled that the widow of a deceased member of the Signet Group Pension Scheme was not entitled to receive a spouse’s pension because the couple were not married at the point the scheme rules required in order to qualify for the benefit.
Mrs R filed a complaint to the ombudsman service, claiming that the scheme trustees had declined to pay her a spouse’s pension following the death of her husband on 6 June 2014. The determination, however, agreed with the actions of the trustees, stating that under the scheme rules, Mrs R was not entitled to the funds because she was not a qualifying spouse at Mr R’s point of retirement.
Mr R was employed by jewellery firm Signet for 32 years, contributing to a pension over this time. In 1997, he was made redundant so his pension went into payment. Following this, in 2003, Mr R completed an ‘Expression of Wish’ form which detailed that any funds should be paid to Mrs R in the event of his death.
In 2012, the scheme trustees wrote to members to ensure their records were up to date and correct, asking for updated details which included marital status. A qualifying spouse was identified as being a legal spouse or civil partner before the first pension payments.
Although Mr R and Mrs R married in 2013, due to the scheme rules in place, Mrs R did not qualify for the spouse’s pension, despite living with Mr R for over 20 years, with household bills being paid from a joint income. She also did not qualify for a lump sum payment because Mr R had been in receipt of his pension for more than five years.
Madeleine Frost, managing associate, pensions, at law firm Linklaters, said: “The trustee is tied to the pension scheme rules. It is the employer’s duty to set out in the pension scheme rules what benefits it wishes to provide for its employees. The trustee cannot go beyond that and provide different benefits if there is no mechanism in the pension scheme rules to do so. So [its] hands are tied. In terms of historic pension scheme rules, the rules are the rules and the trustee has to follow them.
“Trustees often come up against situations where the rules are quite prescriptive and the marriage must have taken place before a certain date, usually before the member retired, before the member left service. That is very common in pension scheme rules.
“But recognising how society works now, there is often a discretion as part of the rule that the trustee can exercise to consider the circumstances of a specific case and dictate that although the rules do not prescribe it, they will pay the survivor’s pension nonetheless. It doesn’t seem that this has happened in this case.”