The age of equal LGBT rights is dawning—finally—on the vast inherited fortunes of the British aristocracy, following a landmark ruling that same-sex spouses will have the same inheritance rights as their conventionally-married peers at one of the U.K.’s most famous country estates.
The Pemberton family, guardians of the 3,000-acre estate of Trumpington Hall, near Cambridge, are believed to be the first aristocratic British family to have changed the inheritance rules of a family trust (which nominally controls the estate) to specifically allow widowed same-sex husbands and wives to have the same rights as other widowed partners.
According to a report in The Times, the judge ruling on the matter made it clear that the ‘variation’ of the trust was not being prompted by any specific awareness that any of the Pemberton’s children—who are aged 14, 12 and 10—have identified as gay.
The family said in court this week, through their lawyers, that they believed they owed “a moral obligation” to future generations to make the change and have refused to comment further on the matter.
The family have owned Trumpington Hall, near Cambridge, since 1715, when they reputedly bought it for a thousand gold guineas.
Despite their storied history, the Pembertons are known for their forward-thinking nature—since Richard Pemberton, 46, took over the estate in 2007, he has created a 28-acre solar farm, according to a report in The Times.
Now they have become the first known aristocratic family in the U.K. to formalize LGBT rights for their heirs and their possible partners.
The principal result of the changes made by the Pembertons is likely to be that a widowed gay partner will retain property rights over the estate until their death, or after they voluntarily hand over the reins to the next generation.
They will effectively have what are sometimes quaintly termed ‘dower rights’—these vary from family trust to family trust, but usually dowager widows have the right to either stay on in the big house or (more often) in a dower house on the estate.
The Pembertons might have been prompted to act by a near disaster in 2010 when a mistake made in a legal document—four crucial words, “as regards the lease”, were left out of a deed by mistake—designed to mitigate death duties nearly forced them to sell their ancestral home.
While it could be argued that the Pembertons are merely formalizing in their family trust what has now become the established law in the U.K. (following the legislation of same-sex marriage and civil unions in the U.K., inheritance rules now specifically apply to same-sex partners in the same way as they do to all other widowed partners) the issue of how gay partners should be treated within the peerage is still a bone of some contention.
David Furnish famously claimed it’s unfair that he was denied a courtesy title when he and Sir Elton John (who was knighted in 1998) wed, as a woman in the same situation would have been known as ‘Lady John’.
“I am for 100 per cent equality across the board for everybody, in all walks of life,” Furnish told Sebastian Shakespeare of the Daily Mail. “The reality is, if a woman is married to man with a title, she gets a title.”
While Furnish’s point is completely reasonable logically, it should perhaps be pointed out that the British honors system is not logical. And such unfairness does not apply only to gay couples—a woman without a title who marries a Duke becomes a Duchess, but a man without a title who marries a Duchess stays plain Mr.
Furnish, and others like him, will be waiting in vain for a title—such a prospect was categorically ruled out by an extensive ‘tidying up exercise’ undertaken by the government ahead of the gay marriage legislation passing in 2014, which also took the precaution of ensuring that a man cannot become Queen, or Princess of Wales, by marrying the King or the Prince of Wales.
A legal order was inserted into British legislation which categorically ruled that while the change in the law gave gay and heterosexual marital partners the same legal status, it did not apply to the rights of anyone “who marries, or who is married to, the King Regnant” and ruled out the possibility of Dukes, Earls, and other male peers who marry other men would see their partners ennobled.
Overall, the Pembertons’ move has been warmly received in aristocratic circles, where, astereotypically perhaps, gay man and women have long been accepted and included in many upper-class families.
Lady Colin Campbell told The Daily Beast: “I think it’s a very noble thing to do. It will almost certainly only apply in cases of widowhood. To ensure that the widowed partner of an heir would be protected and can remain in situ is a very fair position to take.”