Elderly and vulnerable people are being preyed on by tricksters who are befriending and marrying them so they can automatically inherit everything when they die, campaigners are warning.
HuffPost UK revealed the tale of Joan Blass, a 91-year-old widow with dementia from Leeds who was “secretly married” to a man more than 20 years her junior, who had struck up a relationship and moved in with her only a month after meeting her.
Blass’ shocked family only learned after her death that Blass had got married five months earlier – and the marriage meant the will she had drawn up years earlier was null and void, with everything automatically going to her new husband.
Since highlighting the case, we have been contacted by several other families with similar stories, who are now calling for a change in the law to stop vulnerable people from being exploited.
Experts warn that grooming of elderly people is becoming a serious issue with people living longer and dementia rates spiralling.
One woman told HuffPost UK about her elderly father who was grieving for his wife and suffering short term memory loss. He met a woman who she claims put a false name and address on his bank account shortly after meeting him and then married him months later.
The daughter, who did not wish to be named, said: “Our dad married a predatory woman when we had grave concerns about his capacity. We met her at the wedding.
“She used a false name and address to gain access to his bank account just after she met him and 11 months later, they married.
“She treated him in my dad’s words ‘as badly as she could get away with’ and he eventually got away from her with the help of social services.
“This woman financially, physically and psychologically abused him for four-and-a-half years until we managed to get access to him.
“My dad died a year ago and this woman is now trying to get her hands on everything she couldn’t when he was alive.
“The law desperately needs changing. My dad was grieving for my mother and vulnerable when he remarried and we believe he was groomed by this woman.
“The law is wholly inadequate when it comes to protecting elderly people, particularly those who own assets. In fact, the law protects abusers who marry their victims.
“It is a hidden injustice.”
Daphne Franks, the daughter of Joan Blass, says she has been contacted by around a dozen people sharing similar experiences of their parents being exploited by predators looking to gain their inheritance.
Franks, 62, says her mother did not have the mental capacity to marry and did not mention her marriage to her family as they believe she would have forgotten it had even taken place.
Franks says very few people realise a legal loophole exists which means a marriage renders any previous will invalid and the inheritance automatically goes to the new spouse, unless a new will is made.
Blass had made a will in 2004 leaving everything to her son and daughter – but the “secret marriage” only discovered by her family after her death meant that they were disinherited.
HuffPost UK tried to contact the man that Blass married but he did not respond. However, he has previously said his relationship with Blass was “loving and caring” and claims she did have mental capacity to marry him.
Franks told HuffPost UK: “The man who married my mother is still saying she didn’t have dementia and that I persuaded all the doctors to say she had dementia when she didn’t.
“This is ridiculous as my mother had cognitive tests for dementia and it was mentioned in all her medical records.
“My mother could barely speak by that point because of her dementia – but she was able to repeat, which is what the marriage vows would have involved.
“She did not even recognise my brother three weeks earlier and didn’t know the name of the man she married. She kept asking us who he was and where he had come from.
“She even asked: ‘Did you get him for me?’ thinking he was some form of carer.”
Franks says the biggest issue for her and her family is not about the money, but the sad end to her mother’s life and the fact there is no redress.
“For us, it is about the injustice and what happened to my mother is very hard to come to terms with.
“My only consolation is that my mum doesn’t know her children were left with nothing. She would have been desolate and incandescent with rage as her family meant everything to her.”
Since telling her mother’s story, Franks says many people have been in touch to share their stories.
“We have had a massive reaction from people since sharing what happened with my mother.
“So many people are shocked upon hearing our tale and say: ‘Surely that could not happen?’
“But me and my family and many other families know from personal experience that it can and does happen and something needs to be done about it.”
Richard Powley, Age UK’s head of safeguarding, policy and research, told HuffPost UK grooming is often thought to be aimed at children, but that the grooming of older people is also a real issue.
He said: “There is no doubt that the idea of grooming – building trust in order to exploit someone – happens to older people.
“This can happen through coercion and pressure within a family setting. But it can also happen from fraudsters and rogue traders.
“Anyone can be a victim, but older people are perceived as being more vulnerable.
“With age, people are more likely to experience bereavement and feel isolated and there may also be changes in cognitive function that can impact on decision making.
“Grooming of older people takes place by plausible people who inveigle themselves into someone’s life and take advantage of them.”
He added: “I would encourage anyone who feels they or a family member is at risk to contact adult safeguarding or the police.”
The family of Joan Blass took their case to their MP Fabian Hamilton who submitted a private members’ bill to the House of Commons highlighting the issue and calling for new measures to prevent “predatory marriages” to protect vulnerable people and their families.
The second reading of the bill has been deferred due to Brexit developments but Hamilton told HuffPost UK it is an extremely serious issue which needs prompt changes.
He revealed he has also been contacted by several other people who have suffered similar experiences.
“As the tragic circumstances around Joan Blass’ case gain more publicity, many more people have come forward with similar experiences,” he said.
“Predatory marriage is an extremely serious issue in the UK as there is no law to prevent it taking place.
“I will continue to campaign alongside the victims for the government to introduce new rules which protect the most vulnerable people from financial exploitation through marriage.”
Hamilton says people don’t realise that any marriage means a previous will is revoked and the first thing his bill seeks is to change this.
He explained: “This is a major issue, particularly with second marriages later in life. If you remarry after the death of a spouse, whether you have dementia or not, most people would not realise any will leaving everything to their children would be superseded.
“As the marriage revokes the will, if you don’t make a second will, you die intestate and everything automatically goes to your surviving spouse – and this is what happened with Joan Blass.”
As well as seeking to change the law which allows a marriage to revoke a will, Hamilton is seeking for better training of registrars and a mental capacity test for marriage as well as a better system for advertising the fact that a marriage will be taking place so families can be forewarned.
The Home Office says registrars are provided with detailed guidance to help them determine if a person has the mental capacity to marry and where it is suspected a person is not entering into a marriage of their own free will or lacks the mental capacity to understand the nature of the marriage contract, proceedings should be stopped or deferred until the registration officer has the capacity to make an informed decision to marry.
Has your family been affected by predatory marriage or do you know an older or vulnerable person who you believe has been a victim of grooming? Share your story and increase awareness by e-mailing: email@example.com