A government minister has told the House of Lords that two elderly British sisters who lost their case in the European Court of Human Rights over inheritance tax will not be evicted when one of them dies.
Joyce, 88, and Sybil Burden, 90, unsuccessfully argued that British law treats them less favourably than a lesbian couple in a civil partnership.
The siblings have been living together in Wiltshire since they were born, but fear that one of them will be left with a large inheritance tax bill when the other passes away.
The 40% inheritance tax on their family farm would mean the remaining sibling would have to sell the property to pay the bill.
Their four bedroom house and 30-acre farm, near Marlborough, is estimated to be worth £875,000. Only properties worth more than £285,000 are subject to inheritance tax.
Lord Davies of Oldham told peers:
“The Inland Revenue is not in the business of dispossessing people of their homes.
“That has not yet happened because the two sisters are, happily, alive and well.
“When such a case occurs, the Inland Revenue (HMRC) takes due care to ensure that the payments are staggered over a period of time in order that someone should not be dispossessed of the home they may have lived in for a long time.
“The present practice encompasses exactly the position identified by my noble friend, but that is different from changing the law on inheritance.”
In 2005 the implementation of the Civil Partnership Act brought inheritance laws for gay couples in line with those of married couples, meaning a surviving spouse will inherit their partner’s estate without paying tax.
The law does not apply to family members living together, which Joan and Sybil claimed is a contravention of their human rights.
The spinster sisters have written to the Chancellor before every Budget since 1976 asking for exemption for family members from inheritance tax.
Asked if the government’s attitude was “extremely mean-spirited,” Lord Davies told peers:
“Inheritance tax is not paid by 96 per cent of estates at present, so we are not talking about a massive loss to the Revenue—I freely admit that. We are, however, dealing with where the legal position should be drawn.
“I wanted to indicate that HMRC works sympathetically in cases such as the one that has been identified by the two sisters.
“No one is contemplating one of them losing her place in the home if the other dies. That will not happen.”
Lord Tugendhat pressed the point.
“Although we are talking about a small number of people, there is a genuine issue of hardship here. The issue raised by the two noble Baronesses about the benefit to society of the sort of change envisaged by the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, ought also to be taken into account. Perhaps he could think again.”
Lord Davies of Oldham responded:
“My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for the invitation to think positively. He will appreciate that although society might move on, the law moves on only when the Government overcome forthright opposition to changes in this area. It is not as if the issue of civil partnerships has not been contested in the past by others in the House.”
Last month, in a 15-2 vote, judges sitting in Strasbourg ruled that the sisters are not the victims of discrimination.
“The absence of such a legally-binding agreement between the applicants (the Burdens) rendered their relationship of co-habitation, despite its long duration, fundamentally different to that of a married or civil partnership couple,” they ruled.
The sisters vowed to continue their fight through lobbying politicans.
“We are struggling to understand why two single sisters in their old age, whose only crime was to choose to stay single and look after their parents and aunts, should find themselves in such a position in the UK in the 21st Century,” they said after the European Court ruling.
“Having always paid our taxes and cared for our relatives and each other when necessary without any help from the state, we are now in the worrying and unsettling position of being unable to secure each other in our last few years.
“It is not an exaggeration that we feel as if we have been personally persecuted. This is a day we hoped, as British citizens, we would never see.”