What is a deathbed marriage?
For those people in a relationship who are taken seriously ill, and have little to no chance of recovery, an application can be made for the issue of a Registrar General’s Licence so that they can formalise their relationship, either through a wedding or civil partnership. These can take place at any time, 24 hours a day, and can take place in any location, including the person’s home, hospital or hospice.
Why would someone want a deathbed marriage? What are the advantages?
One of the major factors attributed to couples deciding to formalise their relationship in such testing and difficult circumstances is to afford their surviving partner the security and protection that a marriage or civil partnership can offer. The Office for National Statistics document a rise in applications from 575 in 2017 to 661 in 2019.
Currently the UK does not recognise common law marriages, a common misconception shared amongst many cohabiting couples.
Without a formal legal marriage or civil partnership, the surviving partner is not automatically entitled to inherit the deceased estate or other entitlements. They may also be subject to large amounts of inheritance tax depending on the pool of assets that make up the estate.
There is also the idea that some couples do not wish to live under the legal title of marriage or civil partnership during the course of their relationship. However, the shortcomings in the protection for cohabating couples means that upon knowing of their imminent death they wish to formalise the relationship, and benefit from the protection that can result. It is suggested that one of the reasons the late Sir Ken Dodd married his partner Anne Jones just two days before he died was in order to save her from the weighty inheritance tax that would have resulted from gifting his estate through a will. As his spouse she was entitled to inherit his estate free from any inheritance tax. One last laugh from Sir Ken, all at the taxman’s expense.
Siobhan McLaughlin lost her partner John Adams to cancer and was left to raise their four children alone. Unfortunately, Siobhan believed that cohabiting brought her the same rights as marriage. She was refused both a bereavement payment and widowed parent’s allowance precisely because she had chosen not to marry. She states that these payments would have been a considerable help and may have saved her from having to work a second job. After a well fought court battle and appeal it was finally ruled that denial of the benefit was incompatible with human rights.
How quickly can a deathbed marriage be actioned?
Contact your nearest Registry Office to the borough in which the marriage will take place and the Registrar General’s Licence should be granted on the same day. If the ill person is in hospital or hospice the staff will be able to assist with this process. A letter from the doctor in attendance will be required. You can find template letters here. To link: https://secure.manchester.gov.uk/downloads/download/6430/rgl_marriage_and_civil_partnership_template_letters
What are the disadvantages of a deathbed marriage?
A deathbed marriage could be challenged in terms of inheritance and where other family members believe that they should have inherited some of the estate.
As in the case of Wharton v Bancroft. After 32 years of being together the couple married when the husband was told he had a short time to live. In addition to marriage he also Willed his estate to is wife. This was later challenged by the man’s daughter who said that her ill father was coerced into his decisions. The court found that Mr Wharton was a capable testator and the daughter was unsuccessful in her claim.
Providing all of the legal obligations have been fulfilled including the presence of a qualified and authorised Registrar a deathbed marriage can be a final act of love. The departing spouse taking comfort in ensuring financial security and protection for the person they love.
Following the ruling in Siobhan McLaughlin’s case there is pressure on ministers to change the rules potentially benefiting thousands of families. In the meantime only marriage and civil partnerships will provide adequate financial security.
If you require advice on any aspect of family law including nuptial agreements please telephone our office and our specialist family lawyers are ready to assist.