Opinion 

Are deathbed marriages a good idea?

Nicholas Fairbank

Nicholas Fairbank

Comedian Ken Dodd made headlines last year when he married his partner of 40 years, Anne Jones, two days before he passed away. 

Heartbreaking and poignant – a deathbed marriage is romantic, tinged with sadness, and often quite practical too.

These marriages are also on the rise – according to Home Office statistics from 2018, there has been an increase in urgent applications for marriage.

Usually these applications are for weddings in hospitals or jails. The same rights attach to registered civil partners as to married couples.

There is nothing new about a deathbed marriage – many couples decide to wed when time is running out.

In the case of Mr Dodd’s wedding, Ms Jones said the couple always said they would get married at some time and then somehow, it happened.

But why are these marriages on the rise now? And are there any potential risks to getting married in this way?

Many have attributed the rise in deathbed marriages to the lack of protections afforded to couples in long-term, cohabiting relationships.

Even if a couple have been together for 40 years, have children and own a property and other assets jointly, there are still certain rights and protections which only married couples and civil partners have. 

“Common law marriage” is a myth and it is understandable that couples who otherwise were in no rush to get married might consider it as a matter of urgency if one was dying. For example, if one partner dies without a will, their assets will generally pass onto blood relatives – not their cohabiting partner.

By contrast, in the same situation a spouse or registered civil partner would be protected. 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.

Several high-profile court cases in the past couple of years have acted to bolster the rights of cohabiting couples.

The most recent, and arguably the most important, is a judgment from the Supreme Court handed down last August which ruled that denying an unmarried mother of four children a widowed parent’s allowance was illegal and a breach of her human rights.

The past year has seen significant pressure from a number of organisations for a change in the law to offer more cohabiting couples rights.

For example, Sir James Munby, a retired English judge, has argued: “Reform is desperately needed. The Law Commission has recommended reform. Thus far governments have failed to act. Reform is inevitable. It is inconceivable that society will not in due course have righted this injustice.”

However, we are still awaiting real progress in this area. Change occurs at a snail’s pace so we are likely to see the uptick of deathbed marriages continue.