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The rise of death bed marriages, and are they a good idea?

Are death bed marriages a good idea?

On 5th November, England entered a month-long (well hopefully!)  second lockdown in the ongoing response to the COVID19 pandemic bringing the wedding industry into turmoil once again.

New government guidelines now state that weddings would not be permitted at all during the lockdown in England unless in the very exceptional circumstances of a ‘deathbed wedding’.

So, whilst many couples face having to postpone their big day for the second time, for some couples the agonising choice of whether to marry their partner, whilst there is still time, is one they must face. 

The death bed marriage

One of the most famous death bed marriages occurred a few years ago when Ken Dodd married his partner of 40 years, Anne Jones, two days before he passed away.

Heartbreaking and romantic, a deathbed marriage can bring comfort to the couple involved whilst also working on a practical level to offer financial protection for the partner left behind. 

And global pandemic aside, they are on the rise: statistics published in May 2018 by the Passport Office revealed there were 190 urgent marriage applications, an 11% increase from the previous year, to get married or enter a civil partnership.

Organising a death bed marriage

An urgent application to marry requires a Registrar General’s Licence which enables people to get married or enter a civil partnership anywhere, anytime (24 hours a day) at very short notice. 

The criteria to obtain a licence is that you need to confirm that the person is seriously ill and not expected to recover (you will need to provide medical evidence from the doctor in attendance, usually by letter); cannot be moved to a place registered for marriages and that they understand the nature and purpose of a ceremony. 

Due to the nature of the requests, licenses are granted quickly – often on the day of application. 

Are death bed marriages a good idea?

Death bed marriages are nothing new – many couples decide to marry when time is running out. 

For the Dodds, it was a case that they had always intended to marry but just never got round to it before. 

For others, some people may see marriage as confirmation of their relationship; some may have faith-based reasons, whilst others may want to ensure that their surviving partner has all the financial protection of being their widow. 

For example, protection would be given through inheritance of assets or the receipt of widows entitlements that would be paid from pension schemes or life insurance. 

What are the benefits of a death-bed marriage?

Providing the legal requirements have been fulfilled, including the presence of an authorised registrar, a death bed marriage offers the same level of legal protection provided to married couples and those in a civil partnership.

This can help to address the lack of financial protection afforded to couples in long-term, cohabiting relationships, including inheritance and pensions, should one partner die.

Even if a couple has been together for 40 years, have children, own property and other assets jointly, they do not have the same rights and protections that married couples, and civil partners have. 

For cohabiting couples, if one partner dies without leaving a Will, their assets will generally pass onto blood relatives – not their partner.

Similarly, inheritance tax does not apply to spouses, and cohabiting couples do not have the same rights over their partner’s pension as a married couple would.

What are the disadvantages of a death-bed marriage? 

There is the potential for an inheritance dispute after a death-bed marriage when other family members believe that they should have inherited some, or all, of the estate.

The Inheritance Act of 1975 allows people to make claims against an estate if they have not been ‘reasonably financially’ provided for, not inherited due to no Will, or been left out of a Will. 

However, it is worth noting that any challenge will be assessed on financial need more than entitlement and challenges.

Challenges can also be made if it is believed that the person at the time was coerced into marriage or did not understand the true meaning of what was happening. 

An example was the case of Wharton v Bancroft where the husband married his partner of 32 years and made a Will to leave everything to her after being told he did not have long to live.

His daughters challenged the Will based on the fact that he was unable to understand the meaning of it.  

However, the court found that Mr Wharton was not coerced into changing his Will and was a capable testator.

A death bed marriage creates an opportunity for a couple to make a final declaration of their love for one another, whilst also serving as a stark reminder of the lack of legal protection in place for cohabiting couples over those married or in a civil partnership. 

More information

A Registrar Generals Licence is obtained from the borough where the ceremony is to take place. You can find details on the relevant council website on how to apply.  You can read the current government guidance on weddings during COVID19 here. 


Julian is Stowe Family Law’s Senior Partner and is based in our Leeds office. Julian has extensive experience in all aspects of family law particularly in complex financial disputes. He has been with the firm for over 20 years and has a reputation for his strategic thinking and ability to cut through to the key issues and solve the most intractable of cases.

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