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 Rod Stewart and Penny Lancaster (26 years). And it could be argued that in politics such a wide age gap between spouses has a positive effect on voters – Donald and Melania Trump (age gap 24 years), and Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron (also 24 years) becoming first couples in the USA and France.

However, growing concerns are being raised surrounding increasing 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. It is not widely understood that in law, marriage automatically invalidates a will. By exploiting this legal loophole, an unscrupulous individual can marry a vulnerable elderly 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 drawn up by the deceased 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.

It is currently only in cases of bigamy or incest that a marriage can be annulled, once one of the parties has died. 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 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.

Bretherton Law has been serving the people of Hertfordshire for over 50 years, and we are proud to support the more vulnerable members of society by continuing to offer Legal Aid for private family matters. Our Wills and Probate team will give you sympathetic, practical advice on Will Writing, Lasting Powers of Attorney, Court of Protection, trust or probate services. Contact Anne Stockley on 01727 869293, or use the contact form below. 

Related articles 

For more information on the campaign go to: Justice for Joan

The Times: Loophole that lets gold‑diggers wed vulnerable elderly

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