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Sisters argue for equal tax rights to same-sex couples

13 September 2006

Two elderly sisters who have lived together all their lives have gone to the European Court of Human Rights to argue for the same inheritance tax rights as gay and lesbian couples.

“I can sympathise with their dilemma but their chances of legal success appear slim”, said Richard Hogwood, solicitor at City law firm Speechly Bircham. “The trouble with exempting cohabiting siblings from inheritance tax is where to draw the line – how long do they have to cohabit for? What about step-siblings, or half siblings? And why not other caring relationships such as an elderly mother and daughter?”

Joyce and Sybil Burden, 88 and 80 years old respectively, fear that when one of them dies, the other will be left with a huge inheritance tax bill and be forced to sell the family home. They are arguing that the introduction of the Civil Partnership Act 2004, which gives same-sex couples many similar rights to married couples, means inheritance tax rules discriminate against family members who have lived together for a long period of time.

If a spouse or registered partner dies, an estate passes to the other half without incurring any tax.

The sisters’ barrister, Samuel Grodzinski of Matrix Chambers, said that the current laws took no account of the fact that the sisters had lived together and cared for each other all their lives much like a married or same-sex couple would. The sisters are not arguing that these tax exemptions should extend to all siblings, but only those who have lived together for a significant period of time.

But according to Hogwood, “an exemption only for spouses and civil partners at least has that element of certainty. Sadly, though, civil partnership is not an option for sisters, just as marriage is not an option for a brother and sister.”

In July 2004, while the CPA was going through the parliamentary process, the House of Lords voted to extend legally binding civil partnerships to include carers and people who cannot marry, such as children and parents, if they have lived together for more than 12 years and are over 30. The Peers’ amendment was overturned in the House of Commons at the next reading.

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