Campaigners have introduced a bill into parliament to prevent gold-diggers exploiting the elderly and the vulnerable by marrying them for the sole purpose of inheriting their estates.
Under the law as it stands, a person’s will is automatically invalidated when they marry. This means that unless they make another will, when they die they are treated as having no will at all and their estate is divided in a way laid down by law.
This means their spouse will automatically inherit most if not all their estate. The deceased person’s children may end up with nothing, even if they were named in the original will.
The campaigners for change say that this provision in the law has been used by some unscrupulous suitors to marry vulnerable people, knowing that they lack the mental capacity needed to create a new will.
Fabian Hamilton, the Labour MP for Leeds North East, has introduced a 10-minute rule bill into parliament seeking to change the law so that marriage doesn’t automatically invalidate a person’s will.
He believes that reform is necessary because, as the population ages and cases of dementia rise, we we’ll see more cases of unscrupulous people marrying the elderly and the vulnerable to exploit them.
He told the Times newspaper: “This is a story that I could hardly believe was possible in modern Britain, but one which shows that our marriage laws are not fit for purpose.”
Mr Hamilton added that he had been motivated to introduce his bill by a case involving a constituent.
“All the signs were that [the constituent] who was diagnosed with vascular dementia in 2011, was being exploited by the man who eventually became her husband in a secret marriage ceremony in 2015.
“There is no training, or any provisions set out for registrars to identify whether a person has the mental capacity to enter into a marriage contract at the ceremony.”
The Times adds the following case study:
Mary Smith was 87 and in the early stages of dementia in 2011 when she was befriended by a 63-year-old man. Her daughter had concerns about the man’s motivation but no evidence of any wrongdoing. She had power of attorney because of Mrs Smith’s dementia and controlled her finances, but it was only after her mother died that she discovered that she had married the man.
Mrs Smith lacked capacity to make a new will after her marriage, so she died intestate and her entire estate passed to her new spouse. Police spent a year investigating the widower for the potential offence of forced marriage under the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2014, but the Crown Prosecution Service did not bring charges.
Mary Smith is a pseudonym
Mr Hamilton’s bill has little chance of getting through parliament unless it is supported by the government, but it has still served a useful purpose in highlighting what seems to be a growing problem.
Children and other beneficiaries of a will invalidated by suspicious marriage should seek advice from a solicitor because it is possible to mount a legal challenge in some circumstances.
We shall keep clients informed of developments.
Please contact us if you would like more information about the issues raised in this article or any aspect of wills and probate.