Tying The Knot And Closing A Loophole: Preventing Predatory Marriage
Published on 13 October, 2023 | James Brown
Households across Britain are very handy barometers of social and economic change.
One example of that is how couples live together.
In the last half-century, the number of marriages in England and Wales has fallen considerably.
In fact, figures released by the Office for National Statisticsa (ONS) in May, show that the number of marriages in 2020 – the most recent year for which data is available – was down just over 80 per cent on the all-time record of 426,241 set in 1972 (https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/marriagecohabitationandcivilpartnerships/bulletins/marriagesinenglandandwalesprovisional/2020).
Now, there is little doubt that the ability of couples to tie the knot three years ago was impacted by restrictions put in place to reduce the spread of Covid-19.
Nevertheless, even within those pandemic-affected statistics it is possible to extract more subtle and detailed patterns which reveal some of the other notable dynamics at play within the nation’s homes.
One is in relation to people of pension age who choose to marry.
In 2020, 13,307 men and women more than sixty years old did so. Analysis of further ONS’ data shows that to be almost twice the proportion for 2015.
That is relevant for another important reason.
The National Health Service (NHS) has produced data of its own, demonstrating that the chances of developing dementia roughly double for every five years that someone lives over the age of 65 (https://www.england.nhs.uk/mental-health/dementia/).
Dementia is a blight on a huge swathe of the population. At the end of August, just over 473,000 people were living with such a diagnosis in England and Wales (https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/publications/statistical/primary-care-dementia-data/august-2023).
Marriage and mental capacity overlap in a new project launched in recent days by the Law Commission (https://www.lawcom.gov.uk/views-sought-on-electronic-wills-and-the-risks-posed-by-predatory-marriage/).
It has extended the scope of a consultation originally launched in 2016 about whether legislation about wills introduced in the year that Queen Victoria came to the throne should be updated.
The new development is because of growing concern about the risk of financial abuse of vulnerable individuals through what is known as predatory marriage.
That is when a person who is either elderly or may have lost capacity is married by someone solely so that they can either inherit their estate on death or a share of their assets upon divorce.
As I’ve been telling Catherine Baksi of The Times, even though predatory marriage is very much a reality, arguing that it is a factor which should be taken into account when it comes to determining the nature of a divorce settlement is extremely difficult (https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/ff7d79ee-a41b-4e06-be1b-c10b5387ee3b?shareToken=cbf8b1fe3ddccac4f613c8cb73cd2930).
Even if the individuals falling victim to this kind of predation have previously made a will, that document is automatically revoked by marriage.
That much was outlined by media reports of cases such that of Joan Blass (https://www.theguardian.com/society/2021/sep/15/daphne-franks-the-woman-who-lost-her-much-loved-mother-to-a-predatory-marriage).
As a result, a Private Members’ Bill was introduced in the House of Commons in 2018 but ran out of time before it could become law (https://bills.parliament.uk/bills/2317).
I firmly believe, therefore, that the Law Commission’s latest initiative is most timely.
With more men and women of advancing years recognising the many benefits of marriage and the horrible consequences of dementia being visited upon a greater number of homes across the country, any certainty or protection which can be provided can only be a good thing.
The Law Commission’s supplementary consultatation is scheduled to run for another seven weeks.
I will not be alone in keenly awaiting the outcome and the Commission’s suggestions about how law can be revised to offer more comfort to those individuals and their families who need it most.