Marrying for money is certainly not a new concept, nor is the idea of the “Anna Nicole Smith” type of marriage where an attractive young woman marries a wealthy man many years her senior. But some states are starting to look more closely at these types of unions, sometimes called “deathbed marriages,” with some even passing laws to offer more protection to the elderly to prevent this type of abuse.
These deathbed marriages can take on several forms:
(1) the family of the victim notices that the new spouse seems to be spending all of the victim’s money;
(2) the family may not even know of the marriage until after their loved one dies;
(3) the family may know of the marriage but not know until after the loved one dies that their assets have been depleted by the new spouse.
Traditionally, the family’s hands have been tied in all of these situations without solid proof that would void the marriage. But any evidence is often subjective and based on the opinions of the family which, without more objective proof, may not be enough to validate the suspicions in a court of law. But some new laws are designed to prevent at least some of this abuse by loosening restrictions on acceptable evidence and allowing a court to void deathbed marriages, meaning that legally it never took place and the perpetrator cannot claim and inheritance.
New York courts recently ruled on two cases where the victims had married their caregivers. Both men had dementia at the time the marriage took place. The New York court ruled the marriage void in both cases, finding that the elderly men had no legal capacity to know what they were doing or the consequences the marriages might have on their estate. The precedent should create more protection for the families of the elderly who have been the victims of deathbed marriages.
The state of Florida has gone even farther, passing a law that allows any interested person to challenge the inheritance rights of a surviving spouse within four years of the death of the family member. The length of time allowed to file suit gives the family sufficient time to determine whether any undue influence was used to gain a financial advantage. But the law still has one important limitation: if the surviving spouse is listed by name, not just as “spouse”, in a will or trust or other legal document, then the statute does not remove their rights on its own. Obviously, this leaves open a wide range of abuse that could occur, but at least the law is a step in a good direction.
It is unfortunate that some unscrupulous people choose to prey on the elderly, infirm or incapacitated for their own financial gain, but at least some light is being shed on these scams. While it may not be possible to prevent these deathbed marriages before they happen, the new focus on preventing any inheritance by the abuser will make it easier to undo or avoid any damage to the victim’s estate.