|Two elderly sisters in the
United Kingdom narrowly lost their challenge to that nation's
inheritance tax laws which exempt same-sex partners from
taxation so long as they are not related to each other.
In a 4 to 3 decision filed in
December 2006, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled
that the UK's tax rules did not violate the Human Rights
Convention's provisions on discrimination and protection of
Under UK tax codes, when either Joyce, 88 or Sybil Burden, 80,
dies the surviving sister will face a large inheritance tax bill
on their jointly owned property which will require the survivor
to sell the house in order to pay the tax bill.
In 2004, the UK passed a Civil Partnership Act in which it
extended to gays and lesbians the same exemption from
inheritance tax that married couples have.
the Civil Partnership Bill was passing through the British
Parliament, an amendment to it was passed in the House of Lords
by 148 votes to130. That version of the proposed law would
have extended the availability of civil partnership, and the
associated inheritance tax concession, to blood relatives if
they were over 30 years of age, had co-habited for at least 12
years, and were not already married or in a civil partnership.
That amendment was later rejected by the House of Commons.
The sisters (shown in photo) asked officials for an exemption
anyway but it was denied. They
then sent a letter to the European Court, arguing that UK
authorities had violated their rights under Europe's human
Four of the seven judges
accepted the UK's argument that the inheritance tax exemption
for married and civil partnership couples was not a form of
illegal discrimination since the exemption law had a legitimate
aim, namely, "to promote stable, committed heterosexual and
homosexual relationships by providing the survivor with a
measure of financial security after the death of the spouse or
Britain's representative on the
court, Nicolas Bratza, was one of four judges who voted against
In the view of the dissenting judges, "the
situation of permanently cohabiting siblings is in many respects
-- emotional as well as economical -- not entirely different
from the situation of other unions, particularly as regards old
or very old people."
"It is very important to protect such
unions, like any other union of two persons, from financial
disaster resulting from the death of one of the partners," the
The dissenting judges emphasized that the
government had specifically precluded blood relatives from
forming a Civil Partnership, thereby depriving siblings such as
these sisters from establishing a statutory claim for an
other words, they have been deprived of the possibility of
choice offered to other couples," they observed.
of the three dissenters, Judge Stanislav Pavlovsachi of Moldova,
wrote a separate dissent in which he found it
awful that, once one of the two sisters dies, the surviving
sister's sufferings on account of her closest relative's death
should be multiplied by the risk of losing her family home
because she cannot afford to pay inheritance tax in respect of
the deceased sister's share of it."
Reacting to the court's
decision, Joyce Burden told a British newspaper, "If we were
lesbians, we would have all the rights in the world. But we are
sisters, and it seems we have no rights at all."
Patricia Morgan, an expert on family issues, criticized the
court's ruling and told the British press, "I do not see any
reason why one type of relationship should qualify, and another
should not. It is direct discrimination."
The decision of the 7-member court
can be appealed within three months to a 17-member Grand Chamber
which has the option of hearing the appeal or declining to
review it. Since the decision in this case was filed on
December 12, 2006, the sisters have a few more weeks to present
their appeal to the Grand Chamber.
A spokesperson for the attorneys
representing the sisters informed me last week that the sisters
have instructed their lawyers to prepare and file an appeal.
I have only one comment I would like
to pass on to the Burden sisters -- "You go girls."
Unmarried America 2007
Thomas F. Coleman, Executive Director of Unmarried America, is an
attorney with 33 years of experience in singles' rights, family
diversity, domestic partner benefits, and marital status discrimination.
Each week he adds a new commentary to Column One: Eye on Unmarried
email@example.com. Unmarried America is a nonprofit
information service for unmarried employees, consumers, taxpayers, and