Predatory marriage is a marriage where one party is vulnerable and has been induced to enter into it by the other party who will make money from it.
It happens when an older person is targeted either by a male or female predator. It is not a gender specific issue.
Under the law in England and Wales such a marriage would revoke any earlier will under Section 18 of the Wills Act 1837, unless such a will was made in contemplation of the marriage.
Although a predator may seek financial reward from such a marriage, often it is not the sole motive. The predator is often clever, cunning and charming; using coercion, control and ‘gaslighting’.
A typical case of predatory marriage is illustrated by the story of Joan Blass. Joan was 91, with severe dementia and terminal cancer. After her death in March 2016 Joan’s family found that a much younger man, aged 68, had secretly married her five months previously. Family members often do not discover that the victim was married until after their death.
Often predators will move into the victim’s home. They try to allay the fears of friends and family by asserting that they are a carer. They can often convince public authorities such as police, doctors or social services that they are acting in the best interests of the victim. Often a victim is compliant and will have been controlled by the perpetrator to give the ‘right answers’ to external authorities.
In the Care and Report Statutory Guidance of 2022, issued by the government, potential indicators of financial abuse include:
- A change in living conditions
- A lack of heating, clothing or food
- An inability to pay bills or an unexplained shortage of money
- Unexplained withdrawals from an account
- Unexplained loss or misplacement of financial documents
- The recent addition of authorised signers on a client or donor’s signature card
- Sudden or unexpected changes in a will or other financial documents
Often perpetrators will have access to the victim’s bank account by use of a secret PIN number. The victim is often induced to change a will, a Lasting Power of Attorney or effect financial or property transactions in favour of the perpetrator.
The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) Code of Conduct for Solicitors is clear. If a solicitor suspects that a client’s instructions are the result of coercion or pressure (‘undue influence’) then the solicitor cannot act, unless they have satisfied themselves that the instructions are clearly the result of the client’s wishes. A solicitor was sadly fined by the SRA for disregarding clear warning signs: the professional sanction is real.
Steps to avoid the issue
If friends or family are concerned about potential predatory marriage then it is possible to lodge a caveat. It needs to be made clear that it is not a caveat against the issue of a Grant of Probate but against a marriage pursuant to Section 29 of the Marriage Act 1949.
The procedure is relatively simple once the practitioner is aware of it. The problem is that although the relevant form can be obtained from any local Superintendent Registrar, it is exceptionally difficult to locate it. The form cannot, for example, be found on the government’s Form Finder website.
Another option is to seek injunctions against the perpetrator, to either prevent a marriage or contact. Such an injunction can be sought under Section 16 of the Mental Capacity Act 2005 or under Section 63 A of the Family Law Act 1996 (a Forced Marriage Protection Order).
A good example of the power of the court is shown in the relatively recent Court of Protection case of WU v BU & NC  EWCOP 54. Although these powers clearly exist and are effective, they are expensive to implement. The Mental Capacity Act Powers can only be commenced if it is established that the victim lacks capacity to make decisions about contact or marriage.
Practitioners, families and friends of victims need to be alert to the possibility of predatory marriage and financial abuse. They should not be lulled into a false sense of security and think that the victim ‘could never get married because they lack the capacity to marry’. The capacity to marry is a relatively low threshold. As the case of Joan Blass shows, lack of capacity is not always identified by wedding registrars. Be vigilant, be alert.
Stephen Lawson TEP, Head of Contentious Probate at Nicholson Jones Sutton