We sometimes hear about an elderly person marrying a much younger person. What we often do not consider, however, is the possibility that such a marriage is entered into by a “predatory” spouse in order to take advantage of an elderly victim with the ultimate goal of assuming control of his or her finances.
The “predator” is often a caregiver or a family friend or neighbour. In most cases, it is a person who uses a position of trust to cause an elderly victim to change a Will, a power of attorney, an insurance policy designation or other documents. It is also not uncommon for inter vivos transfers to be made while the senior is alive.
According to Ontario law, the act of marriage grants the new spouse certain property rights, specifically with respect to the matrimonial home and spousal support. The most significant effect of a marriage, however, is the fact that the Succession Law Reform Act, revokes any Will executed prior to the marriage. To make matters worse, predatory marriages often occur in private such that the senior’s family members are not aware that he or she has married.
The evidentiary burden imposed upon the elderly victim’s adult family members to prove that a marriage should be declared void as it is a marriage of a “predatory” nature is significant.
Why is it so tough to show that a marriage is void?
Capacity is a fluid concept. It means that a person could have capacity for one task and no capacity for another, as capacity is time and situation specific. Capacity to enter into a marriage, is the lowest threshold of capacity. As such, a person can be entirely capable to enter into a marriage but may be incapable of managing his or her own financial affairs.
In addition, a person likely does not just lose capacity in a day; it is a gradual process such that there is a “grey zone” between having capacity and having no capacity at all. It is in that “grey zone” that a predator will take advantage because a person may start forgetting things but is otherwise capable for all intents and purposes.
Because of that, many are of the opinion that Ontario laws make seniors an easy target for “predatory marriages”. Will there be a change in the law coming our way, in light of the growing phenomenon of such marriages? Only time will tell.
For more information regarding this growing concern and the manner in which this issue has been treated by the courts, please see a paper by Kimberly Whaley of WEL Partners on Predatory Marriages.
Thanks for reading.
The August 13, 2010 edition of Lawyers Weekly featured an article by Kimberly Whaley with the above-captioned title. The article dealt with the relationship between marriage, property, and estates and the resulting risk of predatory marriages.
I think it’s safe to presume that the majority of people believe that once they have executed a Will, their carefully considered estate plans are locked in. However, the provisions people make for their loved ones upon their death are not exactly locked in. According to Ontario law, marriage automatically revokes a Will.
While shocking for many people, there are ways to avoid this unwanted consequence of marriage. For instance, where a person executes a Will in contemplation of marriage, his or her testamentary plans will survive the marriage.
The automatic revocation of a Will can lead to unfortunate and unintended results, particularly when individuals have capacity to marry, but lack the capacity to manage property and/or execute a Will. In such circumstances, a person who lacks testamentary capacity may end up the target of a greedy opportunist looking to marry for money.
In Ontario, where a person’s Will is revoked upon her marriage and she dies, her estate is distributed under succession law as if she died without a Will. According to the Succession Law Reform Act (“SLRA”), when the deceased, who dies intestate, is survived by a spouse and there are no issue, the surviving spouse takes all property of the deceased’s absolutely. Where the deceased dies with a net value of more than the “preferential share” and with a surviving spouse and issue, the surviving spouse is entitled to the preferential share, being $200,000, absolutely. After the preferential share is distributed to the surviving spouse, the surviving spouse is entitled to a distributive share, which varies with the number of children or issue surviving. If, for example, there is a surviving spouse and one child, the excess above and beyond the $200,000 is allocated equally between the spouse and the child. Where there is a surviving spouse and more than one child, the spouse is entitled to a third of the excess and the remainder is divided equally between the children.
The scenario that immediately comes to mind is one where an elderly and frail individual is preyed upon by a younger person who sees the marriage as an opportunity to abscond with the property of the elderly spouse who lacks capacity to manage property during his/her life or execute a Will.
In my next blog, on September 6, 2010, I discuss this topic in more detail, focusing on why predatory marriages are, perhaps, too easily accomplished.