Worrying Rise in 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.
Statistics published in May 2018 from Her Majesty’s Passport Office reveal that in the first quarter of this year there were 190 applications for such licences. This is an 11% increase from 2017, where there were 171 in the same quarter.
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.
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. A recent case in Belfast before the Supreme Court, who were sitting for the first time in Northern Ireland, highlights this precarious position.
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. Whilst the Supreme Court has yet to deliver its verdict on whether the practice of withholding such payments is discriminatory to Siobhan and others who find themselves in similar situations, it must be noted that marriage would have offered far greater protection.
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 cohobating 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.
A coalition of legal organisations has recently written to The Guardian newspaper in an effort to raise awareness and urge the government to implement, as a minimum, some basic legal protection for cohabiting couples. Members of the coalition included Resolution, the Bar Council and the Family Law Bar Association amongst others.
The time has surely come for protection to be extended to those couples that chose to simply cohabit, to prevent the need for any further death bed weddings.
If you are unsure of your rights, whether you are cohabiting, married or in a civil partnership, it is always prudent to take specialist legal advice.