Predatory marriage: legal measures are being taken to combat this terrible abuse
Sarah Coles is head of personal finance at stockbroker Hargreaves Lansdown.
We had never heard of predatory marriages until three years ago, when we realized my father was at risk.
It is now becoming better understood and last week it emerged that the law may change to protect vulnerable people from falling victim.
My dad was at risk because he suffered from vascular dementia after a massive stroke.
While he remained the caring, generous, and fun man he had always been, his brain function was declining to the point where he was having trouble understanding what was happening around him.
His long-time girlfriend left him when he fell ill, so several caregivers supported him every day. He appreciated the help, but what he really wanted was a wife to take care of him, so he began proposing to his caregivers, sometimes almost immediately after meeting them.
Fortunately, they were honorable and kind people, who gently let him down and let us know what was going on. They were worried he might be taken advantage of, so we looked into it.
We contacted the local registrar, who confirmed that although Dad had lost his mental capacity, he could still get married. The rules are set with a lower bar, so that those born with reduced mental capacity are not denied the opportunity to marry.
We knew that wills are automatically voided when you get married, and we realized that since he had no mental capacity, he couldn’t make a new one.
It would have meant that he died intestate (without a will), so his wife would have received all of his personal assets, the first £322,000 of the estate and half of the rest. That’s when we discovered predatory marriages, where someone tricks a vulnerable person into getting married in order to exploit this loophole.
Daphne Franks, whose mother was the victim of a predatory marriage, has been instrumental in bringing the issue to light.
Sarah Coles: We contacted the local registrar, who confirmed that although dad had lost his mental capacity, he could still get married.
Her mother, Joan Blass, 91, had also suffered from advanced vascular dementia, and only after her death did the family discover that, without their knowledge, she had married a man 20 years her junior.
He moved into her house when she was sick. She had given no sign of knowing they were married and she didn’t realize he had moved there. She thought he could be her caretaker.
He inherited her estate and the right to decide her funeral arrangements, so she is now buried in an unmarked grave.
Daphne and her husband challenged this in court, but in the absence of evidence that she did not have the mental capacity to marry, they lost.
Daphne set up Predatory Marriage UK to draw attention to the issue and took her case to Leeds North East MP Fabian Hamilton.
A private member’s bill was introduced in 2018 which called for, among other things, wedding announcements to be published online. It was approved, but parliamentary time ran out. However, it encouraged more families to tell their stories and, as a result of this publicity and pressure, the Law Commission became involved.
On October 5 he launched a consultation to change the law which decrees that when one marries or forms a civil partnership, any existing will is revoked. In fact, he had consulted him before, but in the wake of growing awareness about predatory marriage, he is reconsidering his recommendations.
The first time he suggested maintaining the general rule and establishing an exception if at the time of the marriage the person getting married lacked “testamentary capacity.”
However, he realized that this would not work, because the person who would assess his capacity would be a registrar or a member of the clergy, who would not be in a position to safely assess this.
He is now considering repealing the rule entirely, so the will still stands if someone marries or forms a civil partnership. It will have to make do with offering protection to second families, but it could close the loophole and protect vulnerable people from predatory marriages.
Ministers and peers participate in consultations on what should be considered, but so do judges, lawyers, academics, private sector organizations and charities.
Last summer, the Law Commission also concluded a separate consultation on marriages, which was specifically requested by the Government in the 2018 Budget.
He ended by recommending measures to make it more difficult for someone to secretly marry someone with reduced mental capacity.
He outlined protections that must be put in place before any wedding, including meeting with both people who want to marry separately, posting marriage notices online, and allowing a warning before any marriage notice is served so that For example, someone with power of attorney who believes that the person does not have the capacity to marry can notify the Registrar in advance.
The Law Commission is a statutory but independent body. In the past, around two-thirds of the recommendations have been implemented, not counting those awaiting a decision or parliamentary time.
Therefore, we do not yet know whether this or a future Government will adopt the measures to combat predatory marriage described above, but they would be a step in the right direction.
My father died in February of this year, still single, and the funeral was a sea of blue uniforms worn by his caregivers.
Your support and fond memories of Dad were a beautiful reminder that while there are terrible people who prey on the vulnerable, there are others who are dedicated to supporting and caring for them.
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