Most Americans work to have financial stability once they retire, and that goal is within reach for many, as the senior poverty rate has declined over the last few decades. With income and assistance from sources such as social security, pensions, Medicare, and/or investment accounts such as a 401(k), older people are often able to thrive in their later years. In fact, only about 10% of Americans over the age of 65 are living in poverty. Because seniors no longer have to pay expenses for their children and they likely have paid off their vehicles and/or mortgages, many seniors live a more financially secure life.
However, being financially stable can put seniors at risk of being taken advantage of. At an older age, many people face the death of their spouse or partner, and loneliness and isolation can make them vulnerable to predators who want to marry them for their money. Even Americans with modest assets and income can become victims of “predatory marriages.” A predatory marriage can be devastating for families and is a form of elder abuse.
Understanding Predatory Marriages
A predatory marriage, also called a secret marriage, is a con or scheme whereby a much younger person enters into a relationship with an adult senior with the intent to gain access to that senior’s assets, money, property, and estate. The predator behaves in a way that makes the senior believe they have a love or romantic relationship, when in fact, the predator is only using the senior for financial gain.
The predator usually pushes for a quick marriage, often a courthouse ceremony, when the senior becomes cognitively impaired, confused, and/or unable to fully comprehend the marriage. Additionally, the predator takes action when the senior’s support group, including friends and family, are not in town or are less available. The predator might even marry the senior abroad during a vacation.
How the Predator Works
After the marriage to the senior, the predator moves quickly to ensure access to the senior’s money. They will add their name to bank accounts and empty them of money as soon as possible. Another tactic of the predator is to have the senior revise their will. This can include changing the names of beneficiaries and heirs who were initially intended to receive and inherit property and assets. These people may not realize they’ve lost their inheritance until after the senior has died.
Protect Yourself From a Predatory Marriage
If you’re a senior, it’s possible that a much younger person’s interest in you is based on real love; however, predatory marriages are on the rise, and it’s important to protect yourself from a deceitful and dishonest person pretending to have deep feelings for you.
Sometimes, these relationships develop when the senior has a caregiver and they develop a personal connection; sometimes, the relationship is with someone the senior knows really well. But no matter the situation, it’s important for seniors to protect their assets before they decide to marry—especially if it’s with someone much younger.
New York’s Right of Election
Many people wonder if there are laws in place to protect seniors from predatory marriages, but the simple answer is not really. New York law grants a “spousal right of election.” This means, if your spouse dies, you are entitled to claim one-third of the spouse’s assets (or $50,000, whichever is greater). This is called the “elective share” of the surviving spouse, also known as the “marital right of election” or “spousal right of election” to access the deceased spouse’s assets. So, if the predator has married the senior, they legally have rights to one-third of the assets of the deceased.
An experienced New York elder law attorney can help you understand this law and how to combat elective share claims. But the best way to avoid becoming a victim of a predatory marriage is to take steps before you get married to protect your assets, especially if you’ve bequeathed them to others.
If you’re thinking about marrying later in life, here are some considerations as you contemplate this important step:
- Revisit your estate. “Estate” is a legal term that simply means everything you own. It can include real property such as a house, vehicles, material possessions, investment and bank accounts, and more. Work with a trusted New York estate planning lawyer to establish an estate plan or revise the one you have with documents such as a will and trust, where you can state your wishes and safely protect your assets from a predator.
- Consider your Social Security. If you are widowed, you may be planning to collect Social Security from your deceased spouse’s account. If you remarry, you may no longer be eligible to collect on those funds unless your new marriage ends either by death or divorce/dissolution. Sometimes, getting married again isn’t the best choice, purely from a benefits perspective.
- Consider a prenuptial agreement. If you are determined to marry despite the risks, work with an estate planning lawyer to draft a prenuptial agreement that will protect you and keep control of your assets and estate. A prenup can void the spousal election rights so long as each party was represented separately and the document was fully understood and signed without coercion or other legal issues.
By taking these steps while you are still sound in mind and body, you can be sure your assets are protected and that you are making the best choices in a new relationship.
Plan Ahead to Avoid a Predatory Marriage
Whether you are in a relationship right now or not, taking steps to plan for your estate and protect your assets in case you become involved with someone later is both smart and important. While you are still of sound mind, contact an estate planning attorney to help you decide what will happen to your assets if you become either temporarily or permanently incapacitated or after you have passed on. A New York elder law attorney can help with protective orders and take steps to protect you and your assets from financial abuse.