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Case highlights vulnerability of the elderly and those with dementia

The case of 91-year old Joan Blass highlights the lengths some people go to take advantage of the elderly and vulnerable, especially those living with dementia. Sofia Tayton and Vivienne Middleton explain.

Joan Blass, a widowed former teacher and journalist, lived in Leeds in a house in her daughter Daphne Franks’ garden.

After her mother died, Mrs Franks discovered that the year before, she had married a man more than 20 years her junior. This man had ‘got chatting’ to Mrs Blass as he walked past her garden gate and moved in with her a few weeks later.

The marriage meant that Mrs Blass’ will, naming her two children as beneficiaries, was invalid. She died intestate, and her new husband automatically inherited all her assets.

Mrs Franks has turned to her local MP, Fabian Hamilton, for help in changing the law to protect vulnerable adults from exploitation.

Taking advantage

This is a sad story, which highlights how people are becoming more creative in the ways in which they set about taking advantage of people with dementia.

While there is a legal requirement that a person must have the mental capacity to consent to marriage [DMM (Alzheimer’s: power of attorney) [2017] EXCOP 32], the threshold for consent is not a high one. They wouldn’t have to know, for example, what would happen if they died intestate.

They would need to be able to understand, retain, use and weigh up the fact that the act of marriage would change what they wanted to happen in any current will. According to press reports about Mrs Blass’ situation, she wasn’t able to give her address or date of birth at the wedding ceremony. It sounds like she was very confused.

Of course, when we get married, we’re not all subjected to a capacity assessment by an expert to asses that we ‘pass the test’. Registrars do need more training about this type of situation though, and access to support to deal with any concerns.

Family law

Without doubt, this has had a harmful effect on Mrs Blass’ family. They were so worried when the man moved in with their mother that they sought legal advice. They were reassured that Mrs Blass must have ‘mental capacity’ to get married. Despite this, the marriage went ahead, in secret.

It is surprising that alarm bells were not ringing for the registrar who allowed the marriage to take place. There was a clear age difference between the prospective spouses. Mrs Blass was confused, which should have highlighted her vulnerability.

Remedy

If the family had discovered the marriage before Mrs Blass’ death, there may have been a remedy. They could have applied to the court to nullify the marriage, having the effect in law that the marriage was invalid. This can’t happen after someone dies. The law states that a marriage can only be declared void at the suit of one of the parties to it during the lifetime of both parties.

This follows the Roberts v Roberts [1978] 3 All ER 225 case which held it was: “no defence to an application for letters of administration to allege that a will had not been revoked by a subsequent marriage because the marriage ceremony was performed at a time when the deceased was suffering from senile dementia: such a marriage was voidable and could be annulled only at the suit of one of the parties to it in the lifetime of the parties, and in any event the marriage had to be treated as if it existed up to the time of any such decree”.

We hope that Mr Hamilton’s private members bill, which calls for enhanced protections for vulnerable adults (including those with dementia) is successful. It was submitted to the House of Commons last month, and we’ll watch its progress with interest.

For more information, please contact Sofia Tayton or Jessica Beddows, partners in Lodders private client department, or Vivienne Middleton, associate solicitor in Lodders’ family law team.

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Get in touch

For more information, please contact Sofia Tayton or Jessica Beddows, partners in Lodders private client department, or Vivienne Middleton, associate solicitor in Lodders’ family law team.