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16 September 2019

‘Marriage predators’ – is your inheritance at risk?

‘For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health . . . and, by the way, you have just revoked your will’. That is not how vows traditionally go. But many are not aware that, in England and Wales, when people get married, their existing wills are usually automatically revoked and have no legal effect.

There is some concern that this can lead to vulnerable elderly people being targeted by ‘marriage predators’ who are typically much younger and persuade the elderly individual to marry them. This revokes any existing will and then, on death, the estate passes under the ‘intestacy rules’.

Under the intestacy rules, if the deceased did not have children, the new spouse inherits the entire estate. If the deceased has children, the spouse inherits £250,000 outright, and the remaining assets are shared between the spouse and the children. These rules have not been substantially updated for nearly 100 years and might not reflect what the deceased wanted. For example, the will revoked by marriage might have left everything to the children, another relative or friend, or a charity.

Marriage predators aside, the rule also affects those who carefully considered their wishes and made a will but do not realise that getting married, perhaps for the second time or later in life, revokes that will. When the intestacy rules are applied, this can leave their new spouse jointly owning significant assets in the estate with the deceased’s children from an earlier marriage, which can sometimes put a significant strain on relationships which may already be fractious.

In other jurisdictions, such as Scotland and many US states, marriage does not revoke existing wills. However, anyone with assets in England and Wales should be aware of this rule and review their will whenever their personal circumstances change, particularly if they have plans to marry.

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