Joan Blass – a former University of Leeds alum – passed away in 2016 at the age of 91 after battling severe dementia and terminal cancer for a number of years. Upon her death, Joan’s two children were horrified to discover that a 68 year old man had married her five years previously without any of their knowledge – not even Joan herself.
Sounds impossible, right?
Sadly, as a result of some very dicey laws surrounding fraudulent marriage in the UK, it isn’t actually the impossibility it might first seem.
Currently, UK law states that a new marriage annuls any existing Will, until a new Will is written. Joan’s children only discovered the truth of Ranlyn Lucas’s* secret marriage to their beloved mother, when, following Joan’s death, the inheritance that they expected to be theirs was given entirely to Joan’s new husband, including her house. Not only that, but the family had no control over Joan’s burial – none of Joan’s family were able to attend her funeral and she was buried in a random nearby town, despite Joan’s own desire to be cremated.
Two years after her death, Ranlyn was still living right outside the window of Joan’s poor, tormented daughter; a persistent daily reminder of the trauma he has inflicted on her family.
The revelation came as even more of a surprise to Joan’s family, given that Joan had long been suffering from severe dementia, and had been deemed by her GP and legal advisors to be unfit to make a new Will or to be remarried. On the day of the marriage, the registrars overseeing the ceremony judged Joan’s silent and apparently ‘compos mentis’ demeanour to be sufficient evidence that she was in a fit state to be making such a decision.
Joan’s demeanour, however, was misleading. Individuals suffering from severe dementia can often appear to be happy and unfazed by what is going on around them, without having any understanding of what is actually happening. However, registrars are not trained in assessing mental capacity or recognising dementia. The ceremony went ahead, and by the time Joan was home, she had forgotten it had ever happened.
When Joan’s children took Ranlyn to court over the marriage, the Crown Prosecution Service shockingly ruled in the younger man’s favour, taking the word of untrained registrars over that of Joan’s GP, despite her testifying under oath to Joan’s severe level of dementia.
Predatory marriage – the practise of marrying an elderly person exclusively for the purpose of gaining access to their estate upon their death – is illegal in some countries, but not in the UK. Here, the only time a marriage can be annulled following the death of either spouse is if it is found to be either bigamous or incestuous – forced, fraudulent or predatory marriage do not feature on the list of valid reasons.
In the wake of their mother’s death, Joan’s family are advocating to change these laws and encourage better protection against predatory marriage cases like the one their family has had to suffer through. Their story is especially close to home as Jane actually studied English Literature at the University of Leeds during the War and wrote for and edited The Gryphon during her time here.
Among the changes they are advocating for are the creation of an offence of predatory marriage, training for registrars to be able to better identify signs of insufficient mental capacity to marry and the addition of fraudulent marriage to the list of legal reasons to annul a marriage following the death of a spouse. The family have been speaking with their local MP in the hope that the case will be taken to Parliament in the near future.
In addition to enhancing the laws around fraudulent and predatory marriage, their campaign also aims to make fraudulence easier to prove since the way ceremonies are currently conducted makes it very difficult to do so. Joan’s family propose that better evidence should be kept from both the ceremony and the pre-marriage interviews as currently nothing is kept from either, making it impossible for a plaintiff to prove fraud in court.
Separate 45-minute pre-marriage interviews are meant to take place before any marriage. However, Joan’s family report that they have heard of many instances where these have not been properly carried out. In addition to this, The Mental Capacity Act 2005 states that it should be assumed that someone has mental capacity unless it’s proved otherwise. Marriage ceremonies and interviews are not particularly complicated and require a lot of repeating. It isn’t hard to see how someone suffering with severe dementia would be able to competently get through one without having any idea of what they are actually agreeing to.
Although predatory marriage might seem like a niche issue, such cases can fall off the radar, taking advantage of convenient loopholes in legislation more often than one might think. The more public attention that is given to cases like Joan’s, the more likely it is that we might see some changes to what are currently extremely antiquated laws. Find out more, and what you might be able to do to support the very worthy cause at justiceforjoan.com.
* Pseudonym given on the family’s website
Image: Joan Blass (Justice For Joan)