Over recent years, there has been an increase in deathbed marriages as cohabiting couples realise late in the day the potential financial disadvantages of not being married.
In 1996 1.5 million couples were cohabiting. This figure has more than doubled in the years since, with deathbed marriages also increasing.
To have a deathbed marriage, application must be made for a Registrar General’s Licence which allows a marriage or civil partnership ceremony to take place anywhere, such as home, a hospice or hospital, at any time, 24 hours a day.
There are a number of possible reasons for a deathbed marriage, as a couple attempts to protect the surviving partner.
Reasons for a deathbed marriage
One half of a married couple can leave their entire estate to their spouse without any Inheritance Tax being payable. This is not the case with cohabiting couples, when only the first £325,000 will be exempt from tax.
In 2019, Ken Dodd married his partner Anne Jones two days before his death, she avoided an Inheritance Tax bill. He left an estate reputed to be valued at £7.2 million, meaning Inheritance Tax of £2.6 million would have been due, but was avoided.
By marrying, the whole estate can be passed free of tax providing that the spouse retains possession of the whole value of the estate for a minimum of two years.
In addition, the spouse will inherit assets at the probate value, so Capital Gains Tax on the sale of assets will only be payable on any gains in value since the date of death.
There are also benefits for those who have been widowed that are not available for unmarried partners. This includes Bereavement Support Payments or Widowed Parent’s Allowance. In some cases, pensions are paid to spouses but not to cohabitees.
Marriage and estate planning
There are a number of issues to be aware of when planning a marriage. Importantly, a marriage automatically invalidates a Will, so a Will should be planned alongside a marriage.
If someone dies without a Will in place, then their estate will pass in accordance with the Rules of Intestacy. For a married person, this can mean that the bulk of their estate goes to their spouse and any children may receive less than intended.
An unmarried person does not receive anything under the Rules of Intestacy.
The future for unmarried couples
There have been attempts over the years to make things fairer for long-term cohabiting couples, including by a coalition of legal organisations and family charities. They have lobbied ministers for minimum basic protections for economically vulnerable individuals and families.
A Cohabitation Rights Bill has been put before the House of Lords, which has the potential to safeguard the position of unmarried individuals.