Meet the grieving families denied £10,000 in bereavement benefits scandal

Cassie Shiels’ hopes to marry Cliff, her partner of 13 years, were scuppered by Covid last May.

Six weeks later, tragedy struck. He collapsed upstairs in their home and died of a heart attack.

On its own the grief for Cassie, 32, and their three children was a terrible burden enough.

But now she has been denied £10,000 in bereavement benefits by the government – because they weren’t married.

Cassie is among thousands of unmarried men and women each year who lose a partner, with no bereavement payment.

After defeats in the Supreme Court since 2018, ministers promised almost a year ago to extend Bereavement Support Payment to unmarried couples with children.

The Covid-19 memorial wall in London
The Covid-19 memorial wall in London

But the legal change still hasn’t happened – to campaigners’ fury. And this week Tory MPs voted down a Queen’s Speech amendment, backed by more than 50 MPs, to resolve the injustice within three months.

The DWP insists it is “committed” to extending bereavement payments to cohabiting couples with children.

This week a spokesman said: “We understand how vital this support is to families. We are carefully considering the detail and implementation which we will outline in due course.”

But ministers have not set a deadline. Widowed and Young (WAY), which supports the bereaved, has demanded “immediate action”.

The charity’s ambassador Georgia Elms said: “It is unjust that widowed parents who were not married are still not entitled to receive the same financial lifeline as those widowed when married.

“They have made the same contribution to National Insurance.”

With the nation’s attention on more than 127,000 Covid deaths, the issue of bereavement payments has often slipped under the radar – ironically so, given the number taken before their time.

Campaigners believe more than 2,000 bereaved families per year will be helped when the law is finally changed.

We look at the human stories of three people affected by the delay.

‘I’m trying to afford basics like school uniform’

Cassie Shiels, 32, from Sleaford, Lincolnshire, told the Mirror she had relied on food banks to feed her three children without help from Cliff, a former electrician.

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“They’re penalising the children” she added. “This is something that would help so many people in this situation. It’s very unfair – just because we didn’t sign a bit of paper.”

Cassie was with Cliff, 53, since they met through family in 2007 and had her first child with him in 2010.

Cassie was with Cliff, 53, since they met through family in 2007
Cassie was with Cliff, 53, since they met through family in 2007

They moved from London to Lincolnshire together and she changed her name by deed poll to take his surname.

When she was diagnosed with the chronic pain syndrome fibromyalgia, he became her full-time carer.

“He was my soulmate, he was my best friend,” she said.

She said the pair struggled for money to get married, as well as having a 21-year age gap.

But after she lost her father and grandfather to Covid in April last year, she thought “life’s quite short, let’s just do it” and said she pencilled in a short-notice wedding for May 4.

As the lockdown dragged on, the date was cancelled – then tragedy struck.

On June 19, Cliff collapsed upstairs. She said: “By the time we got to him, he had stopped breathing.

“It seemed like I was doing CPR for hours but it was minutes before the ambulance got there.”

She added: “There was nothing they could do.”

The post mortem showed he had suffered a heart attack caused by a blood clot, she said.

“He was healthy, he didn’t have any medical issues,” she added. “He hadn’t seen a doctor for years.”

Cassie then applied for Bereavement Support Payment, which is worth up to £3,500, plus £350 a month for 18 months.

But she says she was knocked back because they had not been married, despite knowing about the court defeats of the policy.

“It would have helped for the funeral, which had to be very minimal because I had no money,” she said.

“I can’t work so I’m now reliant on benefits. That would have given me that cushion for a while.

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“I would have been able to treat the children better at that time of their bereavement. I’ve got to the stage of trying to afford basics like school uniform.”

‘It’s like our children were not worth as much’

Claire Ryder was just 36 when she suffered a fatal blood clot on the brain, during a meal out on holiday in 2010.

But despite being together for seven years and having two sons, her partner Pete Bailey, 45, from Rochdale, got none of the old-style Widowed Parents’ Allowance from the government.

Pete, a company director, and Claire, a Customer Services Officer at Rochdale Council, had bought life insurance in case the worst happened.

Pete Bailey and his partner Claire Ryder, who died in May 2010. He says it's impossible to forget the injustice
Pete Bailey and his partner Claire Ryder, who died in May 2010. He says it’s impossible to forget the injustice

But it is the principle of injustice – to him and others – that has left him fighting for bereavement benefits a decade on.

And it is the knowledge that he was left without special state help for his youngest son, then six weeks old.

“It’s the inference that our seven-year relationship was not worth anything,” he told the Mirror. “And that our children were not worth as much as children of married couples.

“It was obvious to me that I and the boys were being unfairly discriminated against, and I couldn’t understand how in a supposedly civilised society like ours children could still be treated this way.”

He added: “I’ve tried to forget about it but I can’t because the unfairness is so great.

“I want to give that money to my children to help the have a good start to their adult lives, after their childhoods were tainted by all this.

“I want to help other people as well. People who are bereaved from now should be getting these payments.”

Pete and Claire got engaged on Christmas Day in 2004 but wedding plans slipped as they worked, saved, bought a house and had sons Hayden and Nathan, now 11 and 14.

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They would have been wed in 2011, said Pete – a year after his partner’s death.

While the risk of blood clots to Claire was known, Pete said her death came “out of the blue”.

‘My daughter doesn’t feel like she counts’

Martine Gabbitass’ world crumbled when her partner Paul Burke died three days before his 50th birthday.

At the same time, the rest of the world was crumbling due to Covid-19 – leaving her stranded without proper help.

Paul collapsed with a heart attack while at work, making a government building Covid-secure, on March 4 last year.

Martine with Paul and their two children before his death
Martine with Paul and their two children before his death

But despite being with him since 2002, and having two children, Martine, 50, from Watford, was unable to claim BSP.

She had been married before and “didn’t want the big white dress” again, she told the Mirror.

Two weeks before Paul’s death, they had decided they would get a civil partnership instead – but it never happened.

“It was like a double kick in the teeth”, she said.

To add insult to injury, one of Martine’s friends suffered a similar tragedy six months later. But because she was married, the bereavement benefits were in her account within two weeks.

“The money would have paid for Paul’s funeral, and taken away the panic I had,” she said.

Two weeks before Paul’s death, they had decided they would get a civil partnership instead - but it never happened
Two weeks before Paul’s death, they had decided they would get a civil partnership instead – but it never happened

“Bereavement support payment would have given me the chance to breathe and plan how best to support my children.

“I wouldn’t have had to find money for a funeral, wouldn’t have been panicking about how I could pay the bills.

“I should have been sat with my children focusing on them and only them.”

Martine said her employer was “very” supportive but she was still hit by the panic of having to pay a full mortgage, and £4,500 for a funeral – despite it being cut back by Covid.

She added: “Paul only got paid until the day he died. Of course that makes sense, but you don’t think about that.”

Then there were the stresses of the pandemic, with routine phone calls taking hours due to the national shutdown and queues snaking out of supermarkets.

Asked for her message to the government, Martine said: “Please recognise our children.

“My daughter doesn’t feel like she counts as much as her friend. They get support, their mum’s at home – and I wasn’t there for them in the same way. I had to work.”


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