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Last Updated: Tuesday, 12 September 2006, 03:40 GMT 04:40 UK
'Why must we lose our home?'
By Claire Marshall
BBC News

House for sale signs
Joyce and Sybil worry they will have to sell their family home

Sisters Joyce and Sybil Burden have spent their lives together, and don't want to be forced to sell their house if one of them dies - a prospect they fear under present inheritance tax law, and one they are fighting at the European Court of Human Rights.

Joyce has a liveliness in her voice that belies her 88 years of age.

She is angry about the issues which she and her younger sister, Sybil, aged 80, are facing.

"My father was a local preacher for 60 years. He worked very hard for this house. So why should we have to lose it?"

We nursed my mother and father and two of my aunts in this house until they died
Joyce Burden

The Burden sisters have lived together since birth. Their Wiltshire home, in the countryside near the town of Marlborough is the farm estate where they grew up.

They have written wills leaving all their possessions to each other.

But under current law, if one of them dies, the surviving sister will be hit by crippling inheritance tax bills of several hundred thousand pounds.

They would have to sell the family home.

"We nursed my mother and father and two of my aunts in this house until they died.

"We saved the government thousands of pounds. And this is how we are repaid."

Joyce spreads out dozens of letters on the table in front of her.

'Stable and loving relationship'

She and Sybil have been writing to the government for more than 30 years asking for inheritance tax law to be reformed. Inheritance tax affects estates which are valued at more than 285,000.

In 2004, the law was changed to give gay and lesbian couples equal status as married couples - exempting the surviving half from inheritance duty.

But co-habiting siblings do not have the same rights which Joyce finds bewildering.

"This just shows what the government thinks of us," she says.

According to their lawyer, Emma Stradling, the sisters have spent their lives in a stable, committed and loving relationship.

They are unable to become official partners under the Civil Partnership Act, but their 50 years of mutual support should be supported by the law, they think.

'Frail and anxious'

The case is now being addressed by the European Court of Human Rights.

It will be argued that the UK government is discriminating against heterosexual couples.

Sybil has recently suffered a stroke, and is looking and feeling very frail.

Joyce fears that the stress of the case, and the worry about what will happen to their family home, is to blame.

She says with sadness that all this has meant that they have been unable to enjoy their old age.

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