A rise of so-called ‘predatory marriages’ in the UK has sparked a call for vigilance among family members with vulnerable relatives.
A predatory marriage is defined as somebody coercing an elderly person (who may suffer from dementia or a similar illness that affects decision-making) into marriage.
Under English law, marriage overrides the instructions in a will. This means that if somebody persuades an elderly person to marry them, they are legally entitled to significant amounts of the deceased’s estate.
Marriage can make wills void
This can leave family members - who sometimes do not even know that the marriage has taken place - powerless to prevent the person who instigated the predatory marriage from controlling their deceased relative’s money and even their funeral.
Solicitor, Sarah Young, says that predatory marriage is on the increase in the UK and more should be done to educate others and raise awareness of issue.
Young explained, “What seems to happen is you have an elderly person who lives alone in their own home and someone will effectively make a move. It could be a carer, a friend, or neighbour whereby the relationship may genuinely start with assistance but small behaviours gradually escalate over time.
“For example, borrowing money, taking gifts, or the transfer of property, and in some cases that can lead to the elderly person entering into a marriage without necessarily understanding.”
Excluded from funeral arrangements
One particular case of predatory marriage is that of Daphne Franks, who believes her mother Joan Blass was a victim.
Joan Blass lived a happy life until her health deteriorated in her mid-80s when she was diagnosed with dementia. Luckily, Daphne lived next door and was able to provide support to her mother.
However, in 2011 a man nearly 25 years her mother’s junior struck up a surprisingly close friendship with her. The friend known as ‘Laddo’ suddenly assumed a significant role in her life and quickly positioned himself as a ‘carer’, complete with a key to her home.
Daphne was powerless to intervene and watched on as her vulnerable mother was left to live with a complete stranger.
‘Powerless to intervene’
When Joan died of cancer in 2016, Daphne was shocked to discover that her 91 year old mother had married 67 year old Laddo in a secret ceremony on October 26 2015.
This meant that, under English law, Joan’s will was now void, and ‘Laddo’ was entitled to half of her estate, including her home, and had control of all funeral arrangements. Daphne has been unable to access her mother’s home since she died, and the predatory husband excluded the family from funeral arrangements.
Daphne said, “Mum always made it clear that when she died she wanted to be cremated. Yet, her husband laid her to rest in a cemetery without a headstone, just a bare patch of grass.”
Daphne took Laddo to court to challenge his right to control the funeral. However, the judge concluded that Joan was aware of what she was doing when she entered into the marriage and that Laddo loved and cared for her.
The threshold for having capacity to marry under English law is quite low. Previous cases state that a person need only have a ‘rudimentary’ understanding of the financial consequences.
However, other cases set the precedent that a person must understand the fact that entering into marriage revokes their will.
Registrars - who are typically used to complete the marriage - are often not trained to understand capacity from a medical or legal perspective, and as there are often the only barrier to prevent those without capacity from marrying, predatory marriages can often take place.
The capacity for marriage is simply assumed, while the threshold to make or change a will is much higher - a medical professional is required to verify that a person has the capacity to change their will of their own volition.
The issue is set to be explored in an episode of Rip Off Britain on the BBC, which airs this evening (Mon 7 Oct).