The Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Act 2010 (the “Act”) was signed into law by President McAleese on 19 July 2010 but is unlikely to come into force before Spring 2011. The commencement date of the Act will depend on when the necessary changes are made to the tax codes and social welfare legislation.
The Act provides:
- a statutory mechanism for the registration of same-sex partnerships, setting out the duties and responsibilities of registered civil partners and the consequences of the dissolution of these partnerships;
- the recognition of cohabitant agreements between unmarried same-sex and opposite-sex couples and between unregistered cohabiting same-sex couples; and
- protection of financially dependent cohabitees at the end of cohabiting relationships who have not entered into cohabitant agreements.
The Act deals with the civil registration of same-sex partnerships (“civil partnerships”) which, once registered, give couples rights, obligations and protections comparable to those enjoyed by married couples. A civil partnership will end on death or on its dissolution by a court. The Act specifically provides that a benefit under a pension scheme which is provided for the spouse of a member is deemed to be provided equally for the civil partner of a member. This means that if a pension scheme provides for a spouse’s pension, the registered civil partner is entitled to the same benefit. This will be done by the Act itself and no amendment to the governing documentation of the pension scheme will be necessary.
In circumstances where a civil partnership is dissolved, the court may make a pension adjustment order in favour of the non member civil partner which is broadly comparable to those currently available to a spouse on judicial separation and divorce. The difference between pension adjustment orders made on judicial separation and divorce to those made on the dissolution of a civil partnership is the absence of any reference in the Act to the position of children or dependents of civil partners.
Cohabiting couples are not accorded the same rights as married couples or registered civil partners. However, the Act imposes certain rights and obligations on both opposite-sex and same-sex cohabiting couples who have not specifically opted out of the protections afforded by the Act. The Act provides protection to the financially dependent party at the end of a long-term cohabiting relationship in that the non-member cohabitant can apply to court for a pension adjustment order. To avail of such an order, a qualified cohabitant must have been living with another cohabitant as a couple for 5 years or for 2 years where there is a child of the relationship.
The Act is expected to come into force early next year and will fundamentally change the law in relation to civil partners and non-married couples in Ireland. Employers and pension scheme trustees should be aware of this legislation and its implications and, if necessary, update the rules of their pension schemes to provide for the provision of benefits to a member’s civil partner and ensure that all such benefits are properly funded. In addition, on a practical level, employers will need to take greater care when collecting personal data of members regarding their marital / civil status in order to ensure that the scheme caters for this new class of beneficiary.