Calls for action on predatory marriage

Predatory marriage: black and white image of two hands wearing weddings rings.

Predatory marriage may not be a term you have heard before, but it reflects a sad situation when a vulnerable adult is coerced into a union that is financially beneficial to their new spouse.

The phrase is used regularly in Canada where some provinces have added safeguards to marriage laws aimed at protecting people who do not have the capacity to consent to a wedding.

Rebecca Head, a director of Four Oaks and a member of the national group, Solicitors for the Elderly, said: “Under English law, marriage revokes any previous will and a new spouse can then often inherit a considerable proportion of their new spouse’s estate on death. This has unfortunately led to predators targeting elderly people, perhaps suffering from dementia, and marrying them – often without their families’ knowledge.  When the vulnerable person dies, their new spouse can also control the funeral arrangements.”

Incapable of making a will but capable to marry

“The current legal position is that a good level of capability is required for a person to make a new will but a much lower level of capability is necessary to actually agree to enter into a marriage.  This can result in a person being deemed incapable of making a will but perfectly capable to marry, which some people might find quite surprising”.

Now, Rebecca and the team at Four Oaks are backing calls for predatory marriage to be treated as seriously as ‘forced marriage’, which has been illegal in England, Wales and Scotland (and in Northern Ireland under separate legislation) since 2014.

Rebecca explained: “A forced marriage can involve someone being pressured or threatened into marriage against their wishes but it also applies when someone is unable to consent, perhaps due to a learning disability. When someone is unable to fully understand and give informed consent due to a condition such as dementia, we believe they deserve the same protection.”

MP takes up the issue of predatory marriage

In 2020, the Government’s Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) gave advice or support in 759 cases.

Leeds North East MP Fabian Hamilton says hundreds of families have contacted him since he first raised the issue of predatory marriage in Parliament in 2018. 

He tried to use a Private Member’s Bill to change the law in England and Wales along similar lines to the Canadian examples. The bill attracted support but, unfortunately, it ran out of time.

“Sadly, as people live longer with dementia, and as property values rise, we may see more cases in the future,” said Rebecca. “Difficulties in securing social care may also leave elderly people with dementia more vulnerable to being ‘befriended’ by predators.”

During the summer, Mr Hamilton raised the issue of predatory marriages again at Prime Minister’s Question Time and Boris Johnson said he would look to secure a meeting with the justice department to discuss the ‘injustice’.