Predatory Marriage – Targeting the Elderly

Couples who marry despite the wide gap in their ages are often featured in newspapers and celebrity magazines. Think of Michael Douglas and Catharine Zeta-Jones (age gap 25 years) or Emmanuel Macron and Brigitte Trogneux (24 years).

However, there are increasing concerns surrounding instances of predatory marriage, the practice of marrying an elderly, often vulnerable, person solely for the purpose of gaining access to their wealth upon their death. Many people do not realise that marriage automatically invalidates a will. An unscrupulous individual can marry a vulnerable person, later inheriting their money and property despite not being a named beneficiary in their (now invalid) will.

When a person dies after marrying but before making a new will, their estate passes under the intestacy rules. The new spouse will receive all or some of the estate, depending on the value and whether the deceased had children. Beneficiaries of any previous will can bring a legal challenge but cases can be lengthy, costly and stressful, with no guarantee of success. Even having Power of Attorney over an elderly person’s finances will not prevent them from being exploited in a predatory marriage.

A recent case raised in Parliament by Leeds North East MP, Fabian Hamilton, describes how Joan Blass, a 91 year old suffering from dementia, had been married in secret to a younger man in late 2015. Joan herself never realised she had married again, and her family was unaware that the ceremony had taken place. By now Joan no longer had mental capacity in law to write a new will and she died a few months later, still not knowing about her marriage. Police attempted to put together a case, citing forced marriage, but this fell through because of lack of evidence, and the new husband was declared the main beneficiary of the estate.

In November, 2018, Hamilton introduced a private member’s bill to Parliament to address these issues, and although the bill received its first reading Brexit negotiations blocked any further progress. Daphne Franks, the daughter of Joan Blass, is attempting to give new impetus to the campaign and on October 6th, 2021, she will present an online summit hosted by the University of Nottingham. Called Predatory Marriage: A Call to Action the summit aims to bring together politicians, legal experts, academics and victims’ families to discuss the problem and agree a way forward to end the practice.

In the USA and three Canadian provinces laws have been changed so that marriage does not automatically revoke a will. Campaigners in the UK have a long way to go before our own laws are brought up to date, so it is likely that more cases of predatory marriage will hit the headlines and the vulnerable elderly will remain at risk for some time to come.

At Bretherton Law, we advise on preparing wills and Lasting Powers of Attorney, inheritance tax planning and administration of estates. Arrange an appointment with on 01727 869293 to ensure that your affairs are in order.

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