|Joyce and Sybil Burden keep
pressing their case for equal rights.
The sisters, both in their
eighties, feel they should be exempt from inheritance tax when
once of them dies -- just like married couples and registered
same-sex partners are under British law.
Joyce and Sybil never married.
They jointly own the family home they have lived in all of their
When one of them dies, the
government will impose a hefty inheritance tax on the survivor.
The tax is so substantial that it might force the survivor to
sell the home in order to raise the necessary funds.
The British government provides
no method for siblings to gain a tax exemption, no matter how
interdependent they are or how long they have lived together.
Close relatives are prohibited from entering into a civil
partnership or marriage.
to the British Chancellor before every Budget since 1976 asking
for exemption for family members from inheritance tax.
ago, Joyce and Sybil
also wrote to the European Court of Human Rights. They
were surprised when the court agreed to hear their case.
The sisters found a lawyer to
represent them. He argued that the tax is discriminatory
and violates the sisters' rights under the Human Rights
Convention of the European Union.
After all, he pointed out, a
surviving party in a marriage or a civil partnership would pay
no tax at all. In contrast, Joyce or Sybil might have to
sell their home in order to pay the tax after one of them dies.
Last year, a divided panel of
judges ruled against them in a
4 to 3 vote.
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."
So the sisters filed an appeal,
asking for a rehearing by the court's Grand Chamber. A
panel of 17 judges, from 17 different nations,
heard the case on September 12. A decision may be
handed down as early as December.
The lawyer representing the
Burden sisters argued that the Civil Partnership Act of 2004
infringes on their right to own property and their right to be
free from discrimination under the region's Human Rights
Convention. Their relationship is more solid and longer
lasting than most same-sex partnerships and yet, solely because
they are blood related, the sisters are prevented from
registering as civil partners.
An attempt to extend the
exemption to close relatives who had lived together as adults
for at least 12 years was overturned by the House of Commons
when the Civil Partnership Bill was in debate.
The sisters are understandably
angry. Joyce told a British newspaper that she would
rather burn down the house than to have to sell it to pay taxes
to the British government.
"If Gordon Brown wants it that
much he can have the ashes," she said. "We are both very
angry and are not going to let Mr. Brown have one pence."
"They have taxed us all our
lives," Joyce added, "and we have never claimed any benefits,
apart from our pensions which we paid into."
Sybil also had a few choice words
"We are looked down upon for being single," she told The Times.
"We just want to be treated as equal citizens and given the
rights we deserve."
Sybil pointed out that she and Joyce "saved the Government
thousands by caring for our elderly sick relatives till they
passed away and have never claimed a penny apart from the
lose their case before the 17-member court, the battle will turn
from legal to political.
"The whole issue
of inheritance tax needs to be revisited so
that relationships outside of marriage or
civil partnership are recognized," said Neil
Parish, a conservative member of Parliament.
"Inheritance tax should only apply if
property is passed down from one generation
to the next, not between the same
Joyce Burden deserve to have their 80 year
partnership as sisters recognized by the
law," he added. "I will lobby the government
to change this grossly unfair law."
To read other editions of
Column One, click here.
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
firstname.lastname@example.org. Unmarried America is a nonprofit
information service for unmarried employees, consumers, taxpayers, and