Searchline. Let us do the hunting whatever expert you need. Please call our free SearchLine today on 0161 834 0017

News Detail back to listing

Predatory Marriages: Invalid Wills and Intestacy
  • Jun 24, 2024
  • Latest News

By Philip Collins, Partner, Contested Estates at Winckworth Sherwood
A recent case heard in the Central London County Court highlights the risks associated with so-called ‘predatory marriages’.
Robert Harrington, who died in 2020 aged 94, left the entirety of his estate to his wife of 11 months, Guixiang Qin, who was 39 years his junior. The will was contested by Mr Harrington’s daughter Jill Langley and was ultimately found to be invalid due to lack of testamentary capacity, want of knowledge and approval and undue influence by Recorder Robert McAllister. It was found that Qin was the “guiding hand” behind the new will, with a view to benefitting herself financially.
Whether Mr Harrington was mentally fit to enter the marriage itself was not a question the Court was asked to decide. However, it was noted by capacity assessor Dr Hugh Series that the “law gives a relatively low threshold for marriage”, as distinct from the “much more specific understanding of the estate and potential claimants on that estate” that is required to write a will.
With Mr Harrington’s will found to be invalid, in part due his failure to satisfy this higher standard of testamentary capacity, he is now deemed to have died intestate. Intestacy rules govern how a deceased person’s estate should pass in the event they do not have a will in place.
Despite finding that Qin had exercised undue influence over Mr Harrington in the execution of his will, it is thought that she is expected to receive around £475,000 from his £680,000 estate, due to how surviving spouses are treated under the laws of intestacy. His daughter is expected to receive around £200,000 and Qin has been ordered to pay in excess of £130,000 in legal fees.
The outcome of the case highlights the disparity between the threshold of mental capacity required to make a will, and that which is required to enter a marriage. The result allows for a concerning loophole in which the lower mental capacity required to marry can be exploited by individuals who seek to benefit from a vulnerable person’s estate through the laws of intestacy.
Crucially, entering a marriage or civil partnership automatically revokes any prior will made under English law. This means that unless another valid will is put in place, a surviving spouse will automatically receive the majority of, if not the entire, estate after death. This can have disastrous results for family and friends who find themselves no longer beneficiaries, either at all, or not to the same extent as they had been previously under the rules of intestacy. Ultimately, the automatic revocation of a pre-existing will, combined with the laws of intestacy, mean that marriage can be used as a tool of financial abuse by those seeking to inherit from vulnerable individuals.
The Law Commission is aware of the concerns surrounding ‘predatory marriages’ and as part of a wider consultation on the law of wills is considering reforms to the rule that marriage or civil partnership automatically revokes a will. What is clear is that there is a careful balance to be struck between ensuring widow(er)s are protected when a spouse has not made another will to provide for them, and the real risk that the present rules allow vulnerable individuals like Mr Harrington to be exploited for financial gain.
The final report and draft Bill are due to be published in early 2025.