A 91-year-old woman with dementia and terminal cancer was “secretly” married to a man 20 years her junior, in a case her family says exposes how vulnerable people are being exploited due to a gap in the law.
Joan Blass, of Leeds, had advanced vascular dementia and terminal cancer, and died in March 2016. Her family were shocked to learn she had married a 68-year-old man just five months earlier.
The marriage meant the will she had drawn up years before was voided, and everything automatically went to her new husband – leaving her family with nothing.
Blass’s daughter Daphne Franks, 62, claims her mother did not have the mental capacity to choose to marry. She said the reason Blass had never mentioned it to her family was because she would have forgotten it had taken place.
When Franks spoke to a member of staff at the General Register Office for England and Wales, which holds records of births, deaths and marriages, she was told the office was dealing with around 16 other similar cases. “I believe our story is just the tip of a huge iceberg,” she told HuffPost UK.
Older people are “easy to take advantage of and it is going to become more rife with the ageing population and spiralling rates of dementia,” she added.
The family’s local MP, Fabian Hamilton, has submitted a private members’ bill to the House of Commons highlighting the issue and calling for new measures to prevent “predatory marriages” and protect vulnerable people and their families.
The bill will have its second reading this week.
Franks is hoping to raise awareness of exploitation, and predicts the problem could get worse if it is not directly addressed with fresh legislation.
She says she has recently been contacted by a man who claims the man who married her mother has now married another elderly woman – his grandmother.
Franks told HuffPost UK: “My mum made a perfectly good will in 2004 when she was of sound mind, leaving everything to myself and my brother.
“However, what many people don’t realise is that a marriage will revoke a will, so this secret marriage meant my mum died intestate” – which in effect means she died without making one.
Franks added: “I cannot state strongly enough how devastated my mother would have been if she had known the marriage would disinherit her children. She was an incredibly intelligent woman, a university graduate and teacher and devoted to her family.”
Franks says one of the most difficult elements of the marriage was the fact her mother’s new husband was granted control of her funeral, despite a legal challenge from the family.
“The judge did say it was ‘doubtful’ my mum had the mental capacity to consent to marry, but also said the man was her legal husband and no one had stopped him from marrying her.
“The family had to pay the £200,000 costs of the court case – so we lost our inheritance and our savings. If we had known, we would never have gone to court.”
Franks claims her mother had wished to be cremated but her new husband buried her in a graveyard, which she says has “no headstone and no flowers”.
HuffPost UK tried to contact the husband of Blass, but he was unavailable. However, earlier this year, he described his relationship with her as “loving and caring” and said he felt she did have capacity to marry him.
Franks and her family are fighting for a change to the law so that a marriage does not automatically revoke a will.
They also want to see an offence of “predatory marriage” created – which is already in existence in Canada – to describe a case where someone is led into marriage without the capacity to consent to it.
In the UK this comes under the offence of “forced marriage”, but Franks argues this causes misunderstanding even for professionals, who don’t realise “forced” also applies to those who don’t understand what is going on.
She would not have understood what was going on. Demeanour is no guide to mental capacityDaphne Franks
Franks, who had power of attorney for her mother, also wants to see checks by registrars before marriage. There is currently no obligation at marriage to check whether there is any kind of registered power of attorney in place.
She also wants better training for registrars to look for signs of insufficient mental capacity to marry.
Franks said: “My mum had dementia in her medical records and her GP testified she was not fit for marriage.
“Even on a good day, my mother could barely say her own name and date of birth. One of the reasons the registrars gave for thinking she had the mental capacity was her demeanour.
“But my mum would have been happy and smiling as she was on a nice day out. She would not have understood what was going on. Demeanour is no guide to mental capacity.
“No one can believe something like this could happen. It has been devastating for the whole family emotionally and financially.”
Gavin Terry, head of policy at the Alzheimer’s Society, told HuffPost UK: “This tragic case underlines the need for better training for registrars to recognise signs that someone does not have the capacity to make their vows.
“Sadly people with dementia are at increased risk of financial abuse, so policies that ensure wills are upheld after marriage and that capacity to marry is established are very welcome.”
The Alzheimer’s Society says people with dementia are at greater risk of financial abuse. They carried out a survey which found 15% of carers said the person with dementia for whom they care had been a victim of financial abuse. One million people are set to develop dementia by 2021.
The main reaction since my speech in parliament has been that of shock from all parts of the political spectrumFabian Hamilton MP
Speaking about Blass’s case, Labour MP Hamilton told HuffPost UK: “Since the Ten Minute Rule Bill, it has become clear that Joan Blass’ experience of predatory marriage is not an isolated case.
“Several people have written to me expressing their concerns about the fact that once you are married, your will becomes void.
“The main reaction since my speech in parliament has been that of shock from all parts of the political spectrum. This is not an isolated incident, but is a cross-party issue with support from across parliament.”
Hamilton said he hopes the bill will “get adequate support from the House to progress and if not, at least highlight this very important issue to the government.”
A Home Office spokesman said: “The General Registrar Office has provided detailed guidance to registration officers to help them determine whether a person has the mental capacity to marry.
“Where it is suspected that 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 will be stopped or deferred until the registration officer is satisfied that the individual has the capacity to make an informed decision to marry.
“Where appropriate, the registration officer will contact the Forced Marriage Unit for further guidance.”