A mum whose partner was killed in a mountain bike accident in Leeds has told how she was left struggling to make ends meet just because they weren’t married.
Sheena O’Connor’s partner, Liam Greenwood, died after a freak accident in Middleton Park in September 2016.
Liam fell off his bike in the park, which is now home to Leeds Urban Bike Park, causing part of the bike to puncture his groin, severing his femoral vein.
Tragically, delays in the ambulance service being able to find him in the woods meant that he lost so much blood that his heart stopped and he could not be saved.
Because Sheena and Liam were not married she missed out on thousands of pounds worth of benefits and began to struggle to provide for herself and the couple’s son Euan, who was three at the time of his father’s death.
Sheena, who lives in Holmfirth near Huddersfield, is now joining her local MP to campaign for equal rights for cohabiting couples.
She also wants to raise awareness that unmarried couples do not have the same protections and rights as married couples and have a mistaken belief in the notion of ‘common law marriage’ – which has no specific legal status.
It is thought about one in five couples who live together in Britain are not married.
Sheena told LeedsLive she was not only devastated by his death, but his passing left her in financial ruin as Liam was the main bread winner for the family.
The 35-year-old said: “You never think that something like this would ever happen to you, it’s something that happens to other people – but it can happen to anybody.”
“Grief is difficult enough without the added stress of financial concerns.”
“I was scared and didn’t know how I was going to cope. At times I still feel that way.
“I had a lot of financial worries when Liam died and I ended up on income support.”
Liam had no life insurance as they had not yet purchased a home and her troubles deepened when she discovered she was not eligible for Widowed Parent Allowance because they were not married.
The benefit is worth up to £117 a week but is only for people who were married or in civil partnerships.
“We thought we had all the time in the world to get married and do the things we had planned to do”, the mum-of-one added.
“We had talked about getting married before he passed away and we were about to buy a house, but we pulled out and so Liam had no life insurance.
“If we had been married I would’ve got Widowed Parent Allowance, which would have been a massive help.”
“It was quite a shock to be told that you’re not entitled to something just because you’re not married.”
“It seems it is socially acceptable to make out that your relationship is worth less.
“We were together for six years, so it’s hard to take when you’ve got a child and you’re very close.
“Widowed Parent Allowance would help to alleviate some of the fear, knowing you have that extra financial support you can rely on.
“It would have added some much needed security to mine and Euan’s lives.
“Euan is still Liam’s child and he would want his national insurance contributions to go to supporting him.
“It is not our little boy’s fault that we had not yet married – we just ran out of time.
“There are many couples now cohabiting who have children and the current law does not correctly represent the times we are currently living in.
“It needs to be brought into the 21st century.”
Sheena’s tragic tale has prompted her MP, Thelma Walker, to launch a new campaign to get equality for cohabiting couples.
The Colne Valley MP has lodged a motion in Parliament to extend bereavement support payments for unmarried couples.
She said: “This outdated law infers that cohabiting parents and their children are insignificant.
“Discovering you are not eligible for bereavement benefits comes as a huge blow at an already very painful and difficult time.
“A change in the law would ease the financial strain on many grieving families and give parents the opportunity to spend more time with their children, providing them with much needed emotional support.”
Thelma is now calling for a wider debate in Parliament on the need for changes to the law to give equal protection for cohabiting families and their children.
She added: “Our laws need to reflect the reality of modern day Britain.
“In my constituency there are over 5,000 cohabiting couples.
“Cohabitation is the fastest growing family type in the UK.
“These families and their children deserve the same rights and protections as married couples.”
In the time since Liam’s death, a Supreme Court decision has called into question the legality of denying co-habitees Widowed Parents Allowance.
Sarah Ward, partner and specialist family law solicitor from Huddersfield law firm Ramsdens, said: “Whilst the recent Supreme Court ruling is a welcome victory and may give some the grounds for legal challenge for bereavement benefits, what we need is a change in the law to guarantee basic legal rights for couples who live together.
“Unmarried couples who separate are not necessarily entitled to share in assets, such as a house to which they may have made significant contributions if they are not named as an owner.
“This is the same regardless of the length of their relationship or whether they have children.
“Thelma’s campaign is really important.”
Sheena said changes to bereavement benefits made in April 2017 were also regressive.
Now if a parent passes away you only receive widowed parents allowance for 18 months as opposed to until the time your children leave education.
She added: “Eighteen months is no time in our situation.
“You cannot put a time limit on grief.
“Our child has become more aware of the impact of losing his father over the past couple of years and is in need of more emotional support.
“I expect this to continue to be the case.”
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