Predatory Marriage: Keep Your Loved One Safe
It’s never too late to find love. Unfortunately, many vulnerable people are hoodwinked by predators into getting married solely so the predator can gain access to their finances. Watching family get taken advantage of in this way is no laughing matter.
At Surasky Law Firm, we tackle emotionally draining and legally complex family law issues. If you believe a family member is about to marry a predator, please contact us. Our Aiken, SC family law attorney can meet to develop strategies for protecting your loved one. If they end up married, we may be able to seek an annulment.
What is a Predatory Marriage?
Predator marriages usually involve a person without adequate mental capacity marrying someone who seeks to take advantage of them. In most situations, this involves an elderly person getting married to someone younger or someone who has better mental capacity. In other situations, the victim might be a person with a learning disability.
Most people concerned about predatory marriage are adult children who see their widowed father or mother start a new relationship. These children are suspicious of the motivations of the new romantic partner, who often appears out of the blue and is much younger.
What Motivates Predators?
Predators are not motivated by love. Instead, they usually seek financial gain. And the rewards can be considerable. Let’s look at some of the financial advantages of being married.
Under South Carolina law, the spouse of a deceased person has a right to 1/3 of the probate estate assets. This “elective share” applies regardless of what’s in the will. So your father could never revise his will after getting married, but his new wife could claim one third of the estate when he dies. As a result, the amount an elderly person leaves to their children could be much smaller.
A married spouse might have other rights, such as a right to Social Security or pension income. They could also get their spouse to sign over assets while living. Indeed, they often use their influence to gain as much income and assets as they can—all in secret. It is only when a parent dies that you realize your inheritance is gone.
In a minority of situations, a person might seek a predatory marriage with a disabled person or a minor to sexually exploit them. For example, they might sexually abuse them or use them in pornography. Sadly, this type of predatory marriage can happen regardless of the victim’s age.
Is Predatory Marriage Legal in South Carolina?
It depends. A marriage is not legal in South Carolina unless both spouses are mentally competent to consent to it. If your loved one can’t consent, then the marriage is void and you should talk to an attorney about seeking an annulment.
This is a gray area, however. Competency is largely a legal concept. And the fact that your loved one is old—even very elderly—is not, by itself, proof they lacked competency to get married. The test is whether they understood what they were doing and the consequences of getting married. Many elderly parents know what they are doing, even if you strongly disagree with their reasons for doing so. They are also allowed to make mistakes which they later regret.
To determine whether the marriage is valid, we’d want to know more about your loved one. If they are in a dementia ward, then they obviously lack capacity. The same is true if you have a diagnosis that they are mentally retarded. But short of that, we might need to talk to doctors or other professionals.
If you want to get the marriage annulled, talk to a lawyer. The fact that your loved one lacks capacity means it’s hard for them to file their own lawsuit to annul a marriage. As a family member, you have an active role to play in this process.
Can You Seek an Annulment for Other Reasons?
In addition to lack of mental capacity, your loved one’s marriage might be illegal for fraud or duress. For example, your loved one could be physically ill and taken care of by a nurse. The nurse might pressure them to get married, and your loved one might feel they have no choice. Someone who is elderly might also be vulnerable to being tricked into marriage.
Some predators target minors. In South Carolina, a marriage is void if one spouse is under 16 years of age. As a parent, you should immediately contact an attorney to begin the task of having the marriage annulled.
What Happens if My Loved One Has Died?
It might be too late. You would essentially need to challenge the validity of the marriage in probate court so that the predator doesn’t inherit anything. However, key pieces of evidence are missing—namely, your loved one who cannot testify as to why they got married.
If your loved one revised a will or transferred property, we might challenge those actions as being committed under fraud or duress. The probate court should hold a hearing.
What Other Steps Can I Take to Protect My Loved One?
If your parent or other relative lacks capacity, it might be time to create a guardianship. As guardian, you have the ability to take control of your loved one’s personal and health-related decisions. You can also seek to gain control of their finances with a conservatorship. Our lawyers can help you submit a petition to the court requesting an appointment. We can also collect whatever evidence you need to establish incapacity. These steps can shield a vulnerable adult from exploitation.
Contact an Aiken Family Law Attorney
Seeing a loved one exploited is a deeply troubling experience, especially for children. Fortunately, legal help is available. You can prevent a loved one from falling under the spell of a predator. To talk with a seasoned attorney, call Surasky Law today. In a consultation, we can discuss next steps and, if hired, get to work immediately on your case.