An ageing population and a rise in dementia has opened the door to so-called ‘predatory marriages’ – where unscrupulous people prey on the vulnerable for financial gain. And, most shockingly, the law is on their side, says Anna Moore.
Catherine* knew something was wrong when the wedding invitation came through her letterbox in October 2010. The bride was someone she’d never heard of but – although his name was spelt wrongly – she did know the groom. He was 77, practically deaf, suffered from degeneration of the spine and had recently had a hip replacement and a gall-bladder operation.
Catherine also knew that the groom’s wife of 52 years had died two years earlier and that, after her death, he had suffered a stroke from which he had never fully recovered. As he’d struggled in the large, rambling family home, he had moved into sheltered accommodation, though he couldn’t bear to sell the house – a last link to his beloved wife.
How did Catherine, now 62, know all these details? Because the man concerned was her father.
When Catherine, a barrister, asked what was going on, her frail father was evasive and seemed confused so she tried to contact the minister at the Baptist church in Wales – her father’s local church and the supposed wedding venue. ‘I called, left messages – I even went to his home,’ says Catherine, who lived 300 miles away, ‘but I never got any reply.’
Neither could her siblings shed any light. They lived locally to their father and were in regular contact. Her brother was building a shed in their dad’s garden and her sisters did his shopping – yet none had ever heard of his bride-to-be.
The date and time of the wedding was just a normal Sunday service, so Catherine decided to go along. Although she wasn’t a regular member of the congregation, she did know people at the church and wondered if it was possible that they had arranged a surprise party to cheer her father up. ‘That morning, Dad didn’t want to go as he’d had his flu shot and wasn’t feeling well but I encouraged him, in case it was some kind of celebration,’ she says.
As they walked through the church garden, a woman approached – she looked about 15 years younger than Catherine’s father. Unlike the rest of the congregation she was dressed up, wearing a wide-brimmed hat and a black and white dress suit. ‘She was charming and friendly, she told me she was a nurse and had been a friend of my mum,’ remembers Catherine. ‘But I still didn’t recognise her.’ The woman tried to reassure the disbelieving Catherine that she would look after her father, as she produced a tie for the groom to wear and put a flower in his buttonhole.
Sure enough, at the end of the service, the vicar announced a wedding. The ceremony itself was very fast and informal. A stunned Catherine had no idea what to do as her father cried and stumbled through the vows. ‘Part of me wanted to believe that what she’d told me was true,’ she says. ‘We’d lost Mum. Dad was so lonely – the slightest thing would start him crying. Maybe he had found someone. I have no memory of the vicar saying, “If anyone objects, speak now or forever hold your peace”– and even then, you can’t stand up and say, “Just a minute, I don’t know anything about this.” If I’d understood what was really happening, I’d never have allowed it to go ahead.’
At the end of the ceremony, while Catherine tried to support her dad, the woman and the minister quickly retreated (he has since stepped down from his job after a safeguarding enquiry relating to this wedding). ‘We took Dad back to his home and he was very distressed,’ she recalls. ‘I remember saying, “Was that real? Who is she?” Dad said, “I’ll sort it out, don’t worry.” He wouldn’t say much, but he was very obviously frightened of her.’
Though this sounds incredible, ‘predatory marriages’ – where elderly, vulnerable people are coerced into marriage by people intent on gaining access to their estates – are not uncommon. Andrew Bishop, senior associate at Shoosmiths law firm, explains why there’s a very clear incentive. ‘We have an ageing population, a huge rise in dementia and many of these people own their homes – so even a modest estate will be worth over £200,000,’ he says.
‘For an unscrupulous person wanting to exploit an elderly man or woman for financial gain, marrying them is far safer than getting them to change their will. Wills are often challenged or overturned on the grounds of undue influence or mental capacity – but under the 1837 Wills Act, marrying someone automatically revokes their will anyway. A spouse will inherit the first £270,000 and half the remaining estate.’ It’s impossible to estimate how often this happens, since predatory marriages are not covered by current legislation and therefore are not recorded as offences. However, a recent survey by Radio 4’s File on 4 documentary series suggested two UK families a week are seeking legal help after fearing that they have been affected by this issue.
Fighting to raise awareness is Daphne Franks, 64, whose mother Joan Blass was ‘befriended’ by a passer-by while trimming the hedge of her Leeds garden. At the time Joan was 87, recently widowed and had been diagnosed with vascular dementia. Within weeks, this passing stranger, Colman Folan, who was 24 years younger than Joan, had moved into her house. Although Daphne approached her mother’s GP, the social services, a lawyer and the police, no action was taken because no harm was seen.
Daphne continued to visit her mother every day – she lived only yards from her house. It was only after Joan had died, aged 91, that Folan revealed he had secretly married her the year before at Leeds Register Office. At the ceremony, Joan had been unable to remember her age or house number but the registrars went ahead anyway. Daphne is in no doubt that Joan would have forgotten it had even happened within minutes. Folan inherited Joan’s entire estate and also, as spouse, decided on the funeral rites. He buried Joan in an unmarked grave.
Since Daphne began speaking out, she has been contacted by hundreds of families shellshocked by similar ordeals. ‘They follow a pattern,’ she says. ‘The predator befriends the elderly person, often as a companion or a “carer”. They “love-bomb” them and are initially friendly to the family, then very cold. They isolate the victim then marry them, usually in secret – and it’s ferociously easy to do.’
The impact is devastating. Jane*, 55, from Surrey, also discovered after her father’s death that he had married his carer in a local register office – this new wife was in her 50s while her father was 93, newly bereaved after a 66-year marriage. Like Daphne’s mum Joan, Jane’s father was also buried in an unmarked grave – and Jane wasn’t even informed that the funeral was taking place. The woman now lives with her adult son in Jane’s parents’ former home.
‘I’ve not had a decent night’s sleep since,’ says Jane. ‘Some days you really do feel you’ve been taken to the edge – suicide crosses your mind. It’s the injustice, a stranger has done something so wrong and horrifying to your family and there’s nothing you can do.’
Catherine’s experience also took her to the brink. She now knows that the woman her father married that day had met him in December 2009 by knocking on his door and claiming to be a ‘church befriender’. Within one month (and nine months before she actually married him), she had changed her surname to match his, used his address and without any supporting documentation successfully added her name to his bank account, as spouse. Catherine has discovered that she has various aliases, so to this day the family still don’t know her real name or age.
Soon after the wedding, the woman evicted the tenants of the family home, moved in with Catherine’s father and proceeded to spend his three generous pensions. She renovated her own, separate house. She bought a horse for her granddaughter and spent thousands on clothes, restaurants and holidays for her family while Catherine’s father remained housebound. ‘We would knock on the door and she’d say we weren’t welcome and needed to make an appointment to see him,’ says Catherine. ‘We would ring and she would put him on speaker phone so when we asked if he was all right, she was standing right beside him. We were barely able to see him and never able to be alone with him.’
A huge obstacle was that agencies tend to defer to the spouse. ‘She had a veneer of charm, so she was very convincing with every professional she saw, and told people that we were the jealous adult children who refused to accept the second marriage,’ says Catherine. This is something Daphne Franks says she hears repeatedly: ‘Many attempts to raise the alarm, safeguard and protect are dismissed as greedy, grabbing adult children, worried about their inheritance.’
Catherine’s father declined alarmingly fast – both physically and mentally. His medical records have since revealed that his wife was seeking repeated prescriptions for him that he had never needed before, including sleeping pills and anti-psychotics. He lost weight, he became groggy, chair-bound and doubly incontinent. Finally, in August 2015, social services were sufficiently concerned to remove him from his wife and place him in the care of Catherine’s sister.
He recovered well, regained capacity, became continent and lucid – though he suffered terrible nightmares and would ask repeatedly, ‘Am I safe?’ Although he initiated divorce proceedings, his wife contested them. Divorce is slow and difficult unless both parties agree. The case dragged on and in January 2018, their father died – still legally married. In total, this woman received £300,000 and also took all their mother’s jewellery. She is now a befriender in a high-net-worth care home.
The police have investigated the case three times. ‘They told me they know she’s a fraudster and an abuser, but they don’t have the tools to prosecute,’ says Catherine. ‘Even the fact that she added her name to Dad’s bank account as spouse within a month of meeting him isn’t straightforward as she has claimed she did it in preparation.’
Catherine is now on antidepressants and has left her job. ‘I chose a law career because of my moral compass,’ she says, ‘and I worked for a major charity that protected vulnerable people. The fact that I’m a barrister made this worse as I should have been able to help my dad. But the word “wife” knocks it all out. It’s a free pass to abuse. I feel so betrayed and disgusted by the law – it has protected a predator. I could never work in that field again.’
According to Andrew Bishop, there is some action available if you suspect someone of grooming an elderly relative. ‘You should see a solicitor about arranging Power of Attorney or a Deputyship under the Court of Protection, which will allow the person appointed to manage the affairs of someone who lacks capacity,’ he says. A solicitor can also advise on lodging a ‘marriage caveat’ at local register offices which records your reason to prevent a marriage from going ahead.
In one landmark ruling this September, a daughter successfully gained a ‘marriage protection order’ through the Court of Protection which prevents her mother from marrying or entering a civil contract with a man believed by her family to be a predator.
In that particular case, a 70-year-old woman with vascular dementia had been befriended by a 53-year-old man with a long criminal history – including 12 frauds, 14 thefts, blackmail, a firearms offence and allegations of rape and sexual assault from three different women. He had moved in with this vulnerable woman who quickly become estranged from her two adult daughters. She also liquidated investment portfolios worth several hundred thousand pounds and bought a boat, a caravan, a truck and a van (even though she had no driver’s licence). The judge not only agreed to the marriage protection order but also banned further contact between the two of them for 12 months.
However, this is an extreme example involving someone with a long record that revealed his likely intentions. Most predators, says Daphne, are charming and utterly convincing to the outside world. ‘For most of us, the law has created a crime that can’t be prevented and can’t be prosecuted,’ she says. ‘It’s a wide open door for abuse.’
How the law needs to change
Daphne Franks is leading the campaign Predatory Marriage UK, which aims to reform marriage laws to protect people with dementia. Her goals are to…
- Change the law so that marriage no longer revokes a will. This would remove most of the incentive to commit predatory marriage.
- Make predatory marriage an offence. Though it is already an offence to marry someone who lacks mental capacity under ‘forced marriage’ legislation, this is not always understood by professionals.
- Notices of a couple’s intention to marry should be published online or in a database, rather than pinned outside register offices. This would enable families to find out about them in advance.
- Train registrars to look for signs of insufficient mental capacity to marry and have clear procedures in place so they can stop the marriage if they have doubts.
- Allow marriages to be annulled if they are found to have occurred without mental capacity. At present, only marriages that are bigamous or incestuous can be annulled after one party has died.
- Check for Power of Attorney (PoA) before marriage. If a vulnerable person has appointed PoA to someone to look after their affairs, that person should be informed and consulted before a marriage can take place. (Daphne Franks held PoA for her mother because she was unable to manage her affairs – yet her mother could still get married without Daphne’s knowledge.) predatorymarriage.uk