A predatory marriage is where a person marries someone, often someone who is elderly or who lacks mental capacity to marry, as a form of financial abuse. These marriages are without the vulnerable person’s understanding and without the knowledge of their family until it is too late.
Currently under English law a will is automatically revoked upon marriage, meaning that the first £322,000 of their estate and half of the remainder (or all of the estate if there are no children) will then pass to their new spouse under intestacy rules.
An account of such an instance was reported in the BBC televised series ‘Rip-off Britain’ concerning Mrs Joan Blass. Mr F befriended Mrs Blass and married her when she was then aged 91 and living with dementia. Mr F himself was aged 68 at that time. Mrs Blass died 5 months later. Mrs Blass’ children and family were completely unaware of this secret marriage until after Mrs Blass had passed away and she would not have had the mental capacity to consent to the marriage. Mrs Blass had made a will several years earlier leaving everything to her two children. However, the marriage to Mr F revoked that will and he inherited her entire estate and dealt with the funeral arrangements against the family’s wishes. He has since gone on to marry another elderly lady.
While this is only one illustration, fraudulent marriages such as this are happening throughout the country which has given rise to a campaign to change the law so that a will is not revoked upon marriage removing the incentive for a marriage by these predators. This case study also raises awareness for families to be alert to similar situations on behalf of any vulnerable members of their own family.
It is clear that the rule making a will null and void after marriage is ripe for exploitation, but what effect would reversing this rule have upon genuine marriages? While you can of course make a new will after a marriage, this is often overlooked and if the law is changed the old will would then still apply so that the estate would be distributed without taking into account the new spouse.
Removing the rule to revoke a will on marriage also does not solve the problem of predatory marriages where there was no will in the first place. The predatory spouse would then still take the intestacy share of the vulnerable person’s estate.
So what is the solution? – One idea suggested is to allow people to opt out of the rule when making a will. However, this would mean making a choice about unknown future circumstances. Another suggestion is to raise the capacity threshold for marriage, however this could prejudice genuine people with mental health conditions wanting to marry.
An alternative solution would be to leave the law as it stands with a marriage revoking a will, but instead introducing procedures to make it easier for families to obtain remedies after the death so that the predator does not benefit.
As this demonstrates, there is no one easy solution to the issue of predatory marriages. In the meantime the will reform consultation is still under consideration. Families of vulnerable relatives are strongly advised to approach the local authority if they have any safeguarding concerns.
This article was written by Jane Cowdrey, Director, Solicitor & Head of the Wills & Probate Department.