Nearly 12,000 unmarried parents whose partners have died risk missing out on an estimated £175m of benefit payments, according to figures seen by the BBC.
If a couple with children are married or in a civil partnership and one of them dies, the surviving parent is entitled to bereavement support.
Last year, UK law changed to afford cohabiting couples the same right.
They can make backdated claims worth thousands of pounds going back years, but must do so by Thursday, 8 February.
Following a Freedom of Information request, BBC Radio 4’s Money Box discovered that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) estimates about 17,000 widowed parents are eligible for bereavement support payments.
But only about 5,000 people have applied so far, leaving an estimated £175m waiting to be claimed.
To qualify, you had to have children under the age of 18 living with you on 30 August 2018 – the date on which the Supreme Court ruled on the case of Siobhan McLaughlin that it was against human rights law to deny such payments to unmarried parents.
You can check if you are eligible here.
‘We weren’t treated like we were a family’
Janet Cowden lost her fiancé Paul Shoesmith in a motorbike crash during the Isle of Man TT races in 2016.
Because they were only engaged at the time and not married, she did not qualify for any widowed support to help raise their two young children, Jenson and Hudson, then aged two and three.
“It puts questions and a lot of doubt in your head, and you kind of felt, ‘what actually am I to him?’. But we lived like man and wife. The only thing we didn’t have was a piece of paper that said we were man and wife,” she says.
“We were made to feel like we weren’t a family, like we weren’t a family unit and all that we had prior to his death didn’t really exist.”
When the law changed, Janet became eligible for this benefit and received a back payment lump sum of several thousand pounds, as well as support of hundreds of pounds per month until her and Paul’s children turn 18.
“It’s huge,” she says. “I never thought I’d be in this position where I’d lost Paul and we wouldn’t have had that security blanket if you like, so it’s been huge.
“For me though the biggest win was [over] the injustice of it all and feeling like a system, like laws made us feel like we weren’t a family and I don’t think anybody should be made to feel like that.”
Different types of support
There are two types of benefit which widowed parents can claim for, depending on when their partner died.
If it happened before April 2017 the payments were known as Widowed Parent’s Allowance.
If it was after that date the benefit changed to Bereaved Support Payment.
The amount of financial support available depends on individual circumstances, but Alison Penny, director at the Childhood Bereavement Network, says it is likely to be many thousands of pounds.
“Some of the amounts people have received under these back payments really are life-changing. There’s a real symbolic importance to these payments as well. It’s also about the recognition that these children – their grief matters just as much as anyone else.”
A spokesperson for the DWP told Money Box: “To lose a loved one is devastating, and we are helping as many eligible parents as possible to benefit from these backdated payments before 8 February 2024.
“We have alerted bereaved parents to this support through stakeholders, charities and targeted media and social media campaigns, and encourage anyone who thinks they are eligible to visit gov.uk and make a claim by the deadline.”
You can hear more on this story on Money Box shortly after broadcast.
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