As our seniors age, there’s one scam you might not be aware of: predatory marriage. Predatory marriage occurs when someone marries an older person purely for the purpose of using, stealing or extorting funds from an older person.
Australia has a large and ageing population. As people live longer, they become more susceptible to experiencing chronic degenerative conditions, including cognitive decline. By 2036, it is projected that 1 in 4 Australians will be 65+ years old. While age is not determinative of cognitive ability, age-related cognitive decline is a reality. We expect that rates of elder financial abuse, already at record levels, will continue to skyrocket. One method of elder financial abuse is predatory marriage.
An Example of Predatory Marriage
I am really concerned about my dad’s current relationship. After being widowed for some years, he met someone new and, within a short time, they got married. He is in his 70s and she is quite a bit younger, and neither I nor his friends feel that she has the best of intentions.
He has become very isolated: he no longer sees his friends and his communication with me is becoming more and more sporadic. I have tried to see him as much as I can, but she has not been happy about us meeting without her. Now, he has told me that he can no longer see me unless I accept and welcome her. I would find this very difficult as I do not trust her and find it very hard to pretend otherwise.
I want to continue to have a relationship with my dad and want to protect him, but I feel he is being manipulated so that he loses all ties with me. I am at a loss as to how to handle the situation.
This is a common scenario. Perpetrators of predatory marriage might be the older person’s caregiver, a neighbour, a new friend or a long-lost acquaintance. Where there is cognitive decline, it’s very difficult for concerned relatives to see what’s really going on.
The National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA) reports that 90 percent of all elder abuse (including physical, sexual, emotional, and financial) is perpetrated by someone known to the victim. In regards to financial abuse (anything from insurance scams and consumer fraud to misuse of credit cards, and more), statistics show that females are about two-thirds more likely to become victims.
However, when it comes to romantic relationships, the abuse tends to be even. Predatory marriage is often seen when an older person has experienced a recent loss, such as the death of a spouse, and they find themselves befriended by someone younger.
If children aren’t nearby or the person is isolated and depressed, they’re more vulnerable to this attention. What makes it difficult for adult children who are nearby, is that if the older adult has capacity to make decisions then they are entitled to do what they want with their money – and marry whomever they want.
You can’t impede someone’s right to marry unless they have absolutely no capacity, so the problem isn’t so much that they’re agreeing to marry, but that it’s a predatory marriage. When this occurs, after the person dies, there may be no way for a family member to challenge that the person had no capacity to enter the marriage.
Even Predatory Marriage Revokes Previous Wills
In Australia, marriage revokes a will. While the person may have the capacity to marry, he or she may not have the capacity to make a will. Yet the act of marriage itself revokes any previous wills, even if the older person doesn’t have the capacity to write a new one.
The issue is that, even if a will executed following a potentially predatory marriage is found invalid as a result of incapacity or undue influence, the marriage may still be valid, and thus the intestacy rules would apply. Under intestacy laws in Queensland, if a deceased passes with a spouse and children, the spouse is entitled to a preferential share of the estate. Children are therefore rightly concerned that a predatory marriage will not only exploit their parent but will also result in a loss of assets for the estate.
The Australian Institute of Family Studies released a report which found that some older Australians are being psychologically abused or isolated, a practice so serious that experts say it mirrors the “grooming” that child-sex predators use on their victims.
AIFS senior research fellow Rae Kaspiew said the agency’s report found that “emotional abuse seems to be something of a grooming behaviour for financial abuse”.
“It precedes financial abuse in a way that is analogous to the way sexual predators groom children,” Dr Kaspiew said. “There are a variety of ways this can occur. Social isolation, reducing the elder person’s contact with family and friends so there is no surveillance of the potentially abusive behaviour, and so forth.
What Can You Do To Protect Your Loved Ones?
Know the risk factors for elder financial abuse.
Isolation: It’s important to stay in close contact with your ageing loved ones. Predators thrive on isolation and secrecy, and make careful note of new friends and acquaintances whom you don’t know.
Declining physical health: As older people become more dependent on others, be aware of who is caregiving and their relationship with your loved one. Any attempt to shut down communication or to refuse you access should be treated seriously.
Cognitive impairment: According to information Alzheimer’s Australia gathered on the Health Direct website, there are more than 353,800 people in Australia with dementia.
- Dementia is the third leading cause of death in Australia.
- About 1.2 million people in Australia are involved in the care of someone with dementia.
- On average, the signs and symptoms of dementia are noticed by families three years before a firm diagnosis is made.
The presence of dementia may not be enough to prevent a predatory marriage from going ahead, because the test of mental capacity to give consent to marriage is low.
If you are worried about an ageing loved one, it’s important to speak to an elder law solicitor as soon as possible. We may be able to help you to prevent elder financial abuse from occurring, or to stop it before you lose everything. Contact us today for your free, 10-minute phone consultation.