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People With Dementia Are Falling Victim To "Predatory Marriage" Because Of A Loophole In The Law

7 min read

The government is facing urgent calls to close a loophole in marriage rules to protect vulnerable people and their families from "predatory marriage".

Labour MP Fabian Hamilton will today ask MPs in the House of Commons to urgently tighten laws to protect people with dementia and their families from falling victim to "predatory marriage".

The Leeds North East MP launched an attempt to have the law changed in 2018 after being contacted by the family of constituent Joan Blass, a 91-year-old woman with vascular dementia, whose will was nullified after she married a man decades younger.

Her daughter, Daphne Franks, was only informed of the marriage days after her mother died, and was told her estate and the rights to direct her funeral fell to the man who had married her.

The marriage, which had been conducted in secret years after her diagnosis with dementia, meant her previous will had been automatically revoked and handed complete control of her estate to her new husband, despite the family having a Power of Attorney in place.

Hamilton is set to raise the issue again with Boris Johnson at Prime Minister's Questions later today following years of meetings with justice ministers about the loophole.

The Labour MP said he hoped changes to the rules could stop a marriage from immediately undermining a will, while also arguing for better training for registrars to safeguard people who could be forced into marriages without their full consent.

He has also called for better notification ahead of any ceremony to ensure families have more awareness of a potential marriage before it takes place.

Speaking to PoliticsHome, Hamilton said it was "very frustrating" that despite previous meetings, the government had failed to act, and the lack of action would have resulted in other people falling prey to the scheme.

"A lot of lives could have been made better by this," he said.

He said a change in the rules would have prevented "a lot of evil people" from taking all the "worldly possessions and assets" from people targeted by the practice.

"I just want to protect the vulnerable," he said. "It's such a simple thing to resolve and it is not party political. It would make a lot of lives better, and it would stop the very few people with evil intent from getting their way, and I don't see why it can't be done."

Hamilton, alongside Joan’s daughter, Daphne, have been campaigning for the rules around marriage to be changed to protect vulnerable people in the future.

Despite her mother living 30 yards from the family home and having been in contact with the police and social services about the case, Franks said she was unable to have the marriage annulled after her mother's death because of the rules.

It meant the man who had married her mother also was given control of her burial, leaving Joan in an unmarked grave away from the family home, despite her previous wishes to be cremated.

"If you are having your finger bandaged, you have to give informed consent," Franks said. 

"It's a total scandal. It's going to affect thousands of people because it's a very easy easy money making scam for anyone."

Franks called for more robust procedures around registering the marriage, so that untrained registrars were not left with the responsibility of determining consent. 

"They could just say ‘unfortunately because you can't remember your address I have to pause the marriage here’," Franks suggested.

Franks also noted the apparent lack of support for families like hers who have discovered their rights have been nullified after such a marriage. 

“We had been to the police and social services, my mum’s GP and solicitor saying how worried we were – nobody could help," she continued. 

“The registry office said that she was fine on the day, completely compos mentis, until we dug a bit deeper and found out she really wasn’t.

“She had a five year history of vascular dementia. I lived next door, I saw her several times a day.

“She couldn’t recognise family members.

“I had power of attorney, but there is no connection between [that] and marriage.

“So although I had power of attorney, because she couldn’t recognise a pound coin or pay the milkman, she was allowed to overturn the will she had made in 2004 when she was in completely sound mind.

“It has caused incredible distress reverberating right through the family."

Andrew Bishop, a senior associate at Shoosmiths law firm, who has been working with Hamilton to reform the law, told PoliticsHome it is likely there are more cases which have gone unreported.

“One of the key bits of reform we would like to take place is we dispense with the rule that marriage automatically revokes your will," Bishop said. 

“That piece of legislation came out of the 1800s and realistically in a modern age, that’s something which isn’t desirable for many people and creates this marriage trap where if you get married your will ceases to be unless you make a new one."

Bishop said the rule change was about balancing the rights of people to get married and protecting those who may be vulnerable, but he warned the risk was likely to increase as the UK’s population ages and more people live longer with conditions such as dementia.

“These [situations] are few and far between, but I think they are happening more regularly and obviously there are no legal protections for vulnerable people with dementia.”

He added: “The problem is that people [with dementia] potentially present well, but without proper training [for marriage officials], people can be getting married without their family’s consent or knowledge about the impact on their estate or their burial rights.”

Dr James Warner, a consultant psychiatrist and expert in mental capacity said ensuring further legal protection was necessary to safeguard people from falling victim to predatory marriage.

“It is really important to get across that people with dementia can come across as socially very adept,” he told PoliticsHome.

“They can smile appropriately and say yes and no, but when you dig underneath, and you need to ask the right questions, they don’t understand what’s going on around them.”

Warner, who conducts mental capacity assessments for other legal documents, such as wills, said his reports could run to seven pages, but for marriage, those checks were “nearly non-existent”.

“We know there are nearly three quarters of a million people with dementia," he added. 

"This mainly affects people with dementia but can also affect people with other conditions. My sense is that predatory marriage is more common than we think."

Warner echoed Blass's call for more scrutiny over consent in the marriage process. 

“My worry is there are less checks and balances when you get married, which is a major life event, than you would have scrutiny of your mental capacity for a small surgical procedure on your big toe,” he added. 

Gavin Terry, head of policy at the Alzheimer's Society, said those who exploited people with dementia for financial gain are "deplorable".

"Although extremely rare, unfortunately situations like ‘predatory marriages’, where a vulnerable person is exploited by someone who induces them to marry for financial benefit, do happen," he said.

"Exploiting people living with dementia for financial or other gain is deplorable and upsetting for all those involved.

"Everyone with dementia has the right to make informed choices about their lives and should be assumed to have capacity to make decisions.

“However, more needs to be done to protect the 850,000 people living with dementia in the UK from exploitation such as ensuring both parties in a marriage do consent and have the mental capacity to do so."

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