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Predatory Marriage: What Can Be Done?

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a crocodile attacking an elk representing a predatory marriage

Predatory Marriage and What Can Be Done about It?

“A bad marriage is worse than no marriage at all.” Neil Clark Warren

“A sociopath, on the other hand, has the same regard for financial obligations as he does to personal ones: no remorse, no conscience. Get what you want now, and damn the consequences later.”  Mary Jo Buttafuoco, Getting It Through My Thick Skull: Why I Stayed, What I Learned, and What Millions of People Involved with Sociopaths Need to Know

Here’s a recent case that best illustrates a predatory marriage: a 47-year-old caregiver is riding in a car to the funeral home with the sons of the man she has been taking care of, until he died at age 100. She announces that she and the man were married in secret a year ago. This is another kind of elder financial abuse, says the New York Law Journal in the article “Predatory Marriages and the Elderly: A Legislative Solution” and is increasing in number.

This is not an easy case to deal with, because of a defect in the law. In New York, there is a “right of election” statute that permits a surviving spouse to claim a share in the estate of a deceased spouse, even if he or she was left nothing, as long as they were married on the date of the decedent’s death. Originally meant to shield a surviving spouse from being left nothing, this law is now being used by unscrupulous people to take financial advantage of the elderly.

Dishonest individuals marry mentally incapacitated seniors and then claim their right of election share.

These sham marriages can still result in the person receiving a share of the estate because there’s a flaw in this law. The elective share can only be barred, if there was a judgment declaring that the marriage was annulled in effect at the time of death of the spouse. If the predatory marriage is detected before death and a court order voids the marriage, only then can the elective share be denied. If the judgment of nullification is made after death, the surviving spouse can make a claim.

Like most scams, the person pursuing the predatory marriage will work hard to ensure that no one learns about the marriage, until after the person dies.

In contrast, there is a Mental Hygiene Law in New York State that authorizes the court to revoke any previously executed contract, if the court finds that the contract was made while the person was incapacitated. Marriage is treated as a contract under Mental Hygiene Law and a judgment declaring a marriage void can be issued even after death.

In the case of the 47-year-old woman who hoodwinked the elderly man, the family fought back in court and her claim was denied. Based on the evidence, the court found that she knew the man was mentally incapacitated and entered into the marriage to obtain monetary benefits.

A bill has been introduced in the New York Assembly and Senate that would amend the law to allow the courts to declare a judgment of annulment before or after the death of the spouse, thereby voiding the marriage and disqualifying the surviving spouse from claiming the elective share.

The best prevention of elder financial abuse is to have the family involved in preparing the needed legal documents, before a predator can act. That includes power of attorney for financial matters, a will, and trusts to safeguard assets. Talk with an estate planning attorney today to learn how to protect your family against predatory marriages or asset protection generally. 

Reference: New York Law Journal (May 16, 2019) “Predatory Marriages and the Elderly: A Legislative Solution”