Chris Sweeney is an author and columnist who has written for newspapers such as The Times, Daily Express, The Sun and Daily Record, along with several international-selling magazines. Follow him on Twitter @Writes_Sweeney
Predatory marriage is becoming a major concern, with one British MP calling for law changes to clamp down on those who take advantage of vulnerable old people. RT spoke to some who have suffered the devastating hurt it can cause.
Kathy Bates won an Oscar for scaring the living daylights out of audiences for her portrayal of a psychopath in the film adaptation of Stephen King’s thriller ‘Misery’.
However, crazed individuals like that are more common in society than we think. And their cover is increasingly as a loving husband or wife of their victim. Confused? Welcome to the growing world of predatory marriage.
The phenomenon involves elderly people, unable to make their own decisions, often due to dementia, who have been coerced into tying the knot. The problem can prove so damaging that the UK Labour Party MP Fabian Hamilton is demanding a change in the law to prevent it.
RT spoke to several people who have first-hand experience of the terrifying consequences.
One had to remain anonymous due to a binding legal settlement with the predator, so we’ll call her Harriet. Her father was widowed when his wife of 52 years died and, due to serious health issues, he moved into sheltered accommodation.
Then, five days before the usual Sunday service at his parish church in Wales, his children received an invitation to his wedding. Harriet explained: “I rang Dad to ask, ‘What’s this?’ And he said, ‘I don’t know! It’s probably a joke’. I was mystified as it looked real.”
As she walked her father into church on the day of the supposed wedding to investigate, an unknown woman rushed over to give him a tie. Harriet recalled, “The woman said, ‘I knew your mother for many years and we were very good friends.’ It was surreal. She grabbed Dad’s arm and I had his other arm. She said she was a nurse and told me, ‘I’m going to look after your father.’ We were all stunned when the wedding started – we couldn’t believe what was happening.
“In front of the vicar, my dad was crying. And he couldn’t hear what was happening. I had no feeling the vicar knew my dad, but he seemed to know this woman.”
The marriage took place and Harriet even signed the register, explaining that she had been “in a daze”.
She took her father home, but his new wife didn’t come – and then the story started to unfold.
A woman who described herself as a church ‘befriender’ had been visiting her dad. The sheltered housing warden had given her entry, as she was supposedly there to help this elderly gentleman. But it transpired she had been using the access to go through his legal documents, and had even added herself to his bank account.
Eventually, Harriet’s father confided that he had been threatened with jail by the woman, who claimed he had committed fraud. Harriet said, “He was frightened – that’s one of the reasons he didn’t want to say anything. He didn’t want to marry her, but thought he would go to prison if he didn’t.”
The new wife then began to isolate the man from his four children, who had all previously seen him regularly. She moved him back into his marital home, which had been rented to tenants to provide an income stream for him. Harriet arrived one day to the house her parents had shared to be told her father didn’t want to see her. “And then she closed the door in my face,” she recalled. “I tried to ring his mobile and she answered, saying, ‘If you want to see your father, you’ll have to make an appointment.’”
The woman would leave the poor man home alone for extended periods. He was in his late 70s, was deaf, and had dementia and spinal issues. Unable to get up, he would defecate and urinate in the chair where he sat. The new wife then used this to convince healthcare professionals to prescribe him anti-psychotic drugs, which really knocked him for six.
She was also granted pro re nata, which allows a person to up a loved one’s dosage if they feel it necessary.
The man’s general practitioner had reservations, but, as Harriet said, “There was a consultant psychiatrist, a gullible and stupid woman, who believed it. The NHS is very hierarcha,l so a GP has to give way to a consultant.”
When she next saw her dad, Harriet was dismayed. “He’d lost so much weight, I don’t know how he survived.” The family went to all the authorities, but according to Harriet, “their default position was they believed the wife. So, they dismissed us.”
The new wife even managed to have him placed in a psychiatric unit, claiming he had been violent. Increasingly alarmed, Harriet placed a recording device in her dad’s pocket, which revealed that the woman had warned him that, if he said anything, she would stab Harriet’s sister.
The entire family was genuinely concerned the woman might cause harm to the sister, in whose care the pensioner was subsequently placed after social services eventually intervened. Even then, the poor gentlemen couldn’t sleep, and would panic if he heard a car outside, fearing it was his wife returning.
The family went to a Court of Protection hearing to resolve the situation, but nothing happened and the wife was adamant she would not agree to a divorce.
Harriet continued: “Eleven days after the hearing, Dad died because of what she did. She essentially killed him. His anxiety was through the roof. This person killed my father, took all his money, threatened him, coerced him, treated him in his own words as badly as she could get away with, and it didn’t matter as the fraudulent marriage certificate trumped everything.”
In England and Wales, marriage revokes a previous will, so the woman had a claim on his estate. The family paid £100,000 to end the dispute, but claim that, in total, the woman got £400,000 of their father’s funds.
Harriet is reliving the horror in the hope of raising awareness of the issue. She said, “It’s impossible to spot a predator – they’re very convincing. She groomed me, I accept that, just as she groomed the psychiatrist and the bank. She targeted me by saying she was a nurse and was going to look after my dad. At the time, life was a strain and who would’ve thought this woman was going to abuse Dad and strip of him of everything? Predators have a veneer of charm, but are prolific liars.”
Further investigation uncovered the fact that the woman had used several aliases over the years and that her claims of being a nurse were untrue. It’s thought she trawled obituaries looking for targets and had seen Harriet’s mother’s will, as these are public records following death, so she was aware of what Harriet’s father owned and then moved in.
Daphne Franks is one of the leading campaigners on predatory marriage. She gives talks and supports families, but was initially another unwitting victim.
Daphne was shocked to discover that her dementia-stricken 91-year-old mother, who lived in Leeds, had remarried out of the blue, so she went to the local registry office.
She recalled, “The man was very plausible. He said to them: ‘Oh, she’s old and forgetful, but we love each other.’ He set them up by saying she had previously had a stroke and was terminally ill with cancer, which was true. But the registrars looked no further and went ahead.”
The fact the wedding had been kept secret was particularly surprising, considering her mum lived 30 yards from Daphne, in a purpose-built cottage in her garden.
The man was 67 and described himself as a carer. Daphne said, “I kept saying fruitlessly: ‘He’s not her carer! He’s just a man who moved into her house.’ My mum didn’t even know he lived there. She would sometimes ask me: ‘Where does he live?’ She was that far gone.
“The police thought I was making up the story, but the reason I went to them was because, as I was leaving Mum’s house one night, I heard her say to the man: ‘Did I say what you wanted me to say?’”
Due to Daphne’s subsequent extensive research into other cases, she recognised there was a pattern to such scams. Predators often turn up portraying themselves as carers, start to look after the older person and are over-friendly to the relatives. “They’re the kind of people who use your name twice in every sentence,” she says.
Then comes the ‘love-bombing’ phase, in which they send cards or buy flowers to convince the family their intentions are good. However, once the marriage is legally approved, the gaslighting begins.
Daphne found out from relatives that the new husband was telling them she didn’t love her mother. She said, “Sadly, my mum’s brother and his wife believed it. After her death, when it all came out, they apologised and said they’d been hoodwinked. They manipulate people like chess pieces and know exactly what buttons to press.”
Daphne’s mother died and the new husband had complete control over her funeral and, without telling the family, buried her somewhere she didn’t want to be.
He also inherited all her possessions, including Daphne’s father’s letters from World War I and even her wedding dress. The family went to court to overturn the revoking of the will, but were unsuccessful.
Daphne explained: “We cannot prove that she didn’t make a miracle recovery on the day of notification of the marriage and then another sudden miracle recovery on the day of the wedding. All doctors know that is utter nonsense, but it can’t be proved in court.”
Part of the problem in Britain is the process of marriage, with existing laws dating from 1837. And registrars have no medical or legal training to ascertain if someone is able to consent.
Rachael Clawson, Director of the Centre for Social Work, University of Nottingham is researching predatory marriage and said, “Registrars are in a really difficult position. Their job is to ensure marriages are legal, but things evolve and we get new knowledge about situations, and sometimes we keep applying the same old procedures.”
Another problem is that the law states that a notification of marriage has to be displayed only in one registry office – literally on a wall. So, it’s very difficult for a vulnerable person’s family to know their relative is going to be married. One potential solution would be to make notices accessible via the internet.
It’s still early days in uncovering how big this problem is, but currently 850,000 people in the UK live with dementia, and this is expected to rise to 1.6 million by 2040.
Clawson added, “Very often the predator has groomed the person they’re wanting to marry. It’s a really clever and calculated process. Families are portrayed as not being happy about it as they won’t get their inheritance, but it’s actually more complex than that. We want people to look for warnings signs and ask more questions. If something doesn’t seem right, it might not be right.”
Canada is leading the fight to guard against predatory marriage, as it has made several legal changes to remove the financial incentives of a marriage revoking an existing will. But things could be going the other way in England and Wales, as MPs are currently debating whether to allow wedding ceremonies to be held in any location, be it in a family home or on a cruise ship. While well intentioned, this would simply make it easier for predators to become wedded to their victims.
What is certain that it’s a serious issue around the globe and will only get worse unless safeguards are put in place. As Harriet said, “It’s a career option for these predators – and they know the law is on their side.”