The rise of the ‘predatory marriage’ – why calls for law reform are growing
The number of vulnerable people, often elderly, falling prey to so-called 'predatory marriages' is rising - which is why an MP is calling for an urgent change in the law.
Fabian Hamilton MP says that hundreds of families have contacted him since he first raised the issue in parliament in 2018 and now the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has agreed to seek an urgent meeting with the justice department.
"It's shocking that someone can be married without knowing the contract they've entered into or that they're married at all because of the dementia they're suffering from," says Mr Hamilton.
"It's about time we updated our marriage laws that date back to the 19th century and make sure that vulnerable individuals don't find themselves in that position ever again."
What is a predatory marriage?
A predatory marriage is where a vulnerable person is coerced into a marriage they don't have the mental capacity to agree to by a predatory individual who will financially benefit from being their new spouse.
What are the financial consequences of a predatory marriage?
Often the family of the vulnerable person don't even know that the vulnerable person has married until after they have died. It's then they discover that they have been disinherited.
This is because the act of getting married automatically cancels out any previous Will. The laws of intestacy then kick in to decide how that person's estate is divided, with a spouse or civil partner entitled to a significant tax-free share of the estate, however short the marriage.
In addition, the predatory spouse has complete control over the estate and can decide things like funeral arrangements and what happens to treasured personal possessions and family heirlooms.
Why are predatory marriages on the rise?
The UK's population is aging with an estimated 12 million people over the age of 65, many of whom have large and valuable estates.
With this comes an increase in people suffering from long term health conditions like Alzheimer's and dementia, most of whom depend on others for care and assistance.
Sometimes, sadly, this leads to situations where a vulnerable person is exploited by someone who induces them to marry for their own financial benefit.
"The secret marriage just destroyed that Will as if it never existed"
Joan Blass, 91, was one such victim, claim her family. Mrs Blass, who had dementia, married Colman Folan, 24 years her junior, in secret, five months before her death.
While her family insist Mrs Blass' dementia was too advanced for her to know what she was doing, the registrar who married the couple believed she had the capacity to make the decision.
After her death, Mr Folan inherited all her property and possessions because the marriage revoked Mrs Blass' previous Will which had left everything to her children.
"The secret marriage just destroyed that Will as if it never existed," said Mrs Blass' daughter, Daphne Franks.
"All the personal belongings in the house now belonged to him, including my wedding dress and my granddad's letters from the first world war."
Although Mrs Blass' children took Mr Folan to court, the judge ruled in his favour leaving them with a £200,000 legal bill.
They also contacted the police as they felt their mother had been forced into the marriage but the police decided there was no case and decided against prosecution.
How would a change in the law help?
The proposed changes to help safeguard the vulnerable, welcomed by Wards Solicitors, include:
- Improved training for wedding registrars so they are better able to identity vulnerable people;
- Introducing a pre-marriage questionnaire to assess whether someone has the necessary capacity to marry, thus alerting the registrar to potential problems;
- Publicising all notices of marriage on the internet so that weddings are harder to keep secret and families have a chance to step in if their loved one doesn't have the capacity to marry;
- A change to the rules to ensure that marriage should not revoke a Will in every case to remove the incentive for predators to exploit the vulnerable elderly.
Get in touch
Until the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Consent) Bill becomes law, it is important to try to spot a predatory marriage at the earliest opportunity and take steps to help the victim address the issue.
This problem can span several areas of the law. At Wards Solicitors, recommended as a leading practice in the 2021 edition of the Legal 500 guide, we have specialist teams who can help, including our Contentious Trust and Probate team and our Wills and Mental Capacity team.
Click here to read what we have written recently on why you need to make a new Will if you are getting married.
By Elizabeth Fry, Head of the Contentious Trusts and Probate Team