9th Jul 2020

Same-sex couples score victory on pension rights

The EU's top court has boosted the rights of same-sex couples, after ruling that a person is entitled to their dead partner's pension in all EU states that treat homosexual partnerships similarly to marriages.

The ruling by the European Court of Justice, announced on Tuesday (1 April), comes in response to a case triggered by a German citizen, Tadao Maruko, in 2005.

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  • Some have suggested that the ruling could eventually effect the entire 27-nation EU (Photo: EUobserver)

After Mr Maruko's partner died, a German pension fund refused to pay him any survivor's benefits, claiming that only married couples have a right to a widower's pension.

But the Luxembourg-based court found that this violated EU law, outlining a general framework for equal treatment in employment and occupation.

In practice, a person should after the death of their life partner receive a survivor's benefit equivalent to that granted to a surviving spouse, but only if national law treats same-sex partnerships in a comparable way to marriages as far as the survivor's benefit is concerned.

The court therefore underlined that it is up to national courts to determine whether a surviving life partner is in a situation comparable to that of a spouse who is entitled to the survivor's benefit provided for under the occupational pension scheme.

"It's a very important step," Mr Maruko's lawyer, Helmut Graupner, told the BBC on Tuesday, adding: "It's the first time the ECJ has ruled in favour of same-sex couples."

The European Commission also welcomed the judgement, with a spokesperson saying: "It strengthens the principle of non-discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and further specifies the right of registered homosexual partners in the area of employment and occupation."

At the same time, the commission stressed that family law was exclusively in the hands of member states and they were free to decide whether homosexual partnerships should enjoy the same treatment as marriages.

"The right to a survivor's pension exists only if the two regimes [marriage and same-sex partnership] are analogous," the commission spokesman clarified.

However, Mr Graupner has suggested that the ruling could eventually effect the entire 27-nation EU, including countries that do not recognize same-sex partnerships at all.

"The next case may be one of indirect discrimination, from a country that excludes same-sex partners from the rights and obligations of marriage," he told the BBC, adding: "The way out for such a country would mean they would have to provide the same benefits as other countries."

That is also why some conservative politicians in Europe have criticised the fact that the Charter of Fundamental Rights, the citizens' rights document, is to become legally binding under the EU's new treaty.

They claim it could serve as a back door to allowing gay marriages as well as abortions and euthanasia, depending on how the European Court of Justice interprets its articles.

Only Belgium, Spain and the Netherlands recognise full same-sex marriages, while Denmark, Germany, Hungary, Slovenia, Sweden, the Czech Republic and the UK allow for legal partnerships. France and Luxembourg have established civil contracts.

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