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Hunters Law
15th May 2023

Predatory marriage: vulnerable clients, capacity issues and inheritance

Predatory marriage: vulnerable clients, capacity issues and inheritance
Daniel Watson
Daniel Watson
Senior Associate

Predatory marriages are becoming an increasing problem. With an ageing population, and a greater number of people suffering from age-related diseases such as dementia, unscrupulous individuals are taking increasing advantage of vulnerable individuals for financial gain.

Predatory marriage typically involves the 'predator' taking advantage of a vulnerable (often elderly) person by befriending them and then coercing them into a marriage, possibly where that person lacks the required mental capacity to consent to marriage. 

The aim of a predatory marriage is invariably to bring about financial gain for the predator. Such marriages often take place in secret, so there is limited opportunity for family members to raise any objections - or even be aware of the situation - until it is too late.

Marriage registrars are not medically trained to assess capacity, and there is no requirement for registrars to check medical records for issues relating to mental capacity when interviewing prospective spouses. There are thus limited safeguards against predatory marriage before the event.

Entering into a marriage automatically revokes any Will that the vulnerable person made previously. The result is that the predator, once married to the vulnerable person, will immediately benefit from the vulnerable person’s estate when they die, under what are known as the intestacy rules. This may well be against the vulnerable person's true wishes.

The effect of this is that the predator will stand to benefit as follows:

  1. If the vulnerable person dies with assets worth less than £270,000, the entire estate would pass to the predator
  2. If their estate is worth more than £270,000, the predator would receive: 
    • All personal possessions
    • The first £270,000 of the estate; and 
    • Half of the remainder of the estate (if the deceased has surviving children). If the deceased has no surviving children, the entire estate would pass to the predator.

In some cases, a predator may go on to persuade the vulnerable person to put in place a Will entirely in their favour (although the mental capacity required to put in place is Will is greater than that required to consent to marriage, so this may not be possible).

If it is discovered that one party to a marriage did not have the required mental capacity to marry, the marriage is ‘voidable’, and can be annulled. Nevertheless, the marriage is considered legally valid until it is annulled. In other words, a predatory marriage which is subsequently voided still has the effect of revoking a vulnerable person’s Will, resulting in their estate passing under the intestacy rules. Crucially, there is no way to annul a marriage following the victim's death, meaning that any action to annul the marriage needs to be taken during the vulnerable person's lifetime.

Where a predatory marriage has taken place, and is subsequently discovered by relatives, an application could then be made to the Court of Protection to put in place a new, statutory Will for the individual who was subject to the predatory marriage.

There have been widespread calls to reform the law relating to Wills so that marriage does not automatically revoke a Will. Such a reform would remove the incentive for predatory marriage.

In the meantime, if you suspect that there is a risk of a vulnerable person becoming the victim of a predatory marriage, immediate steps should be taken to discuss the matter with the vulnerable individual concerned, if possible, and to report the matter to the relevant local authority where appropriate. In addition, specialist legal advice should be taken as necessary.