The 91-year-old bride, the man she married in secret and a wedding that beggars belief… Joan had dementia and couldn’t even remember the groom’s name. But as her despairing daughter tells, that didn’t stop a very disturbing union
- Joan Blass suffered from severe vascular dementia, struggled with own name
- When the 91-year-old died, Colman Folan, 68, announced to family they had wed
- He inherited Joan’s £35,000 savings, half of her house and personal effects
- Daughter Daphne Franks is lobbying Parliament to prevent predatory marriages
The bride wore . . . well, no one’s entirely sure. One of her favourite print dresses with a pretty cardigan, perhaps?
Apparently she appeared happy enough. That is, the registrar didn’t recall anything other than a pleasant atmosphere and smiley faces. Did she carry a bouquet? Even in this snap-happy age, there’s no photographic evidence to tell us.
But what do such details matter, when the back story sounds so romantic? Namely, a couple slip away on the premise of a mini-break without telling friends or family the real reason for their trip. Only later —– much later —– does the news break that they did so to get married.
It sounds like a Richard Curtis rom-com. Although not, however, when you hear the full details.
For, the ‘bride’ — Joan Blass — then aged 91, was suffering from severe vascular dementia.
Joan Blass, who suffered from severe dementia, was victim to a sham marriage which cost her children their inheritance left in her will
And her groom — some 23 years her junior, at 68 — was a man whose name she couldn’t even recall. She simply called him ‘Laddo’.
Little wonder then, that when news of the unlikely nuptials became known three days after Joan’s death in March 2016, her family were devastated.
‘How do I even describe what I felt?’ says Joan’s daughter, Daphne, 64, a lecturer, still stuttering with disbelief as she unpicks her mother’s relationship with Laddo, whose name was later revealed to be Colman Folan.
‘When I found out, I thought my legs were going to give way. I felt faint, sick. It was almost impossible to process.
‘But there was also anger. That such a thing could happen to my mum, that she could be manipulated.’
So mentally impaired was her mother, says Daphne, she could hardly remember her own name, even on a good day. How, she asks, could she have given consent to a marriage? The case, experts say, reveals a need for an urgent change in the law. Indeed, Daphne is currently lobbying Parliament to end what she sees as a scandalous abuse of the vulnerable.
Because there was more than just an emotional cost to Joan’s secret nuptials. The civil marriage ceremony at Leeds Town Hall on October 26, 2015, meant Daphne essentially lost her inheritance.
‘Marriage automatically revokes an original will,’ explains solicitor Andrew Bishop, senior associate with the disputed wills and trust team at law firm Shoosmiths.
‘Situations like Joan’s are on the rise because we have an ageing population and people are marrying later. A number of people have come to us as more cases become known, though it’s largely still under the carpet.’
With her original 2004 will void, Joan’s new husband was legally entitled to half of her house. The other half already belonged to her children, Daphne and Michael, 55, after it was bequeathed to them on the death of their father, Ronald, in 2008.
Mr Folan also inherited Joan’s £35,000 savings, in spite of Daphne having power of attorney on behalf of her mother, which enabled her to settle her mother’s bills and expenses.
She does stress, however, that during their time ‘together’, Folan did not ask for money.
Along with the savings and her home, Folan also inherited all the keepsakes that reflected the tapestry of Joan’s family life, a source of terrible grief for Daphne: ‘I was never able to recover personal effects from Mum’s house — since lawfully, he had inherited them, including my grandfather’s letters from World War I and my wedding dress. These have no value to anyone but me.’
Colman Folan, 68, announced she and Joan had married three days after her death and inherited half her house, her savings and possessions
The family’s instinctive response when the initial shock had subsided was that Folan must have broken the law.
The courts, however, disagreed.
In December 2016, after a four-day hearing at the Leeds County Court, a judge decided there was no evidence this was a ‘predatory marriage’ or that Folan had behaved unlawfully — even when considering the offence of forced marriage, where one partner is proven to have acted without valid consent — and ruled in his favour.
Reeling, the family’s agony then intensified: the case had cost them more than £200,000, a bill settled only by selling their £175,000 half-share of their mother’s house to Folan — the simplest solution, as they saw it at the time, galling as it was — with the remainder coming from their savings.
‘My mother’s GP testified in court to my mother’s level of dementia, as seen in the witness statements,’ recalls Daphne wretchedly. ‘We couldn’t believe that though the judge decided it was “doubtful” my mother had the mental capacity to consent to marry, Folan remained her legal husband.’
More trauma was to come. As inheritor of Joan’s estate, Folan had the right to take over funeral arrangements and decide how his wife should be laid to rest.
During the months between her death and the court case, Joan’s body remained in a mortuary. When legal matters were completed, Folan chose to bury Joan at a cemetery in Otley, West Yorkshire, even though, says Daphne tearfully, her mother had wanted to be cremated.
He made no attempt to contact her family, and none of them was invited to the funeral. Today, Joan lies in an unmarked plot.
As Daphne states with heartbreaking simplicity: ‘I have visited the grave — there is no headstone.’
The Mail has made repeated attempts to contact Mr Folan, via his younger sister and sons, but has had no response. His sister said she’d had no contact with her brother for more than ten years and had no idea of the marriage.
Family, it’s clear, means a great deal to Daphne. Happily married for 41 years to Stephen, 62, a computer consultant, with whom she has a son, Olli, 31. And it’s this drive to protect families which has made her utterly determined to change the law to ensure a marriage no longer automatically revokes a will.
In November 2018, Fabian Hamilton, MP for Leeds North East, brought the issue before Parliament in a Private Member’s Bill, which sought to establish that marriage should no longer revoke a previous will in every case. It was passed unanimously for a second reading, but ran out of parliamentary time.
Now, with Covid restrictions lifting, Daphne is making a final desperate call for the Bill to be brought back to Parliament — and not a moment too soon, say many academics.
‘On the one hand it’s fantastic that, thanks to deregulation of weddings [a decision which will give couples a greater choice of wedding venues], it will be easier for people to get married,’ says Rachael Clawson, assistant professor in social work at Nottingham University, who has led research into predatory marriage. ‘But they also missed a trick. You can’t make marriage easier at the expense of not safeguarding those who are vulnerable.’
Daughter Daphne Franks from Skipton, North Yorkshire, is campaigning for a change to the law to prevent called predatory marriages.
Dr James Warner, a consultant psychiatrist and medical director of Halcyon Doctors, a home-based healthcare provider in England and Wales, agrees. He believes the problem will only worsen.
‘People who are impaired cognitively are befriended by those with only one thing on their mind. There are 850,000 people with dementia in the UK — and their average life span is 81 years. So there is huge scope for these kind of marriages.’
To those who have vulnerable older parents, Daphne has one message: be careful.
After all, her mother was neither isolated from nor neglected by her family. Far from it. Joan was in their eye line, living in a ‘granny house’ in Daphne’s garden, where she was visited by her daughter several times a day. Yet still she met Folan.
After her pharmacist husband Ronald died following 58 years of marriage Joan, then 85, felt their large, detached Victorian family home was too big for her alone.
Ever considerate, Daphne and her husband bought the house from Joan and built a small three-bedroom house for her, which she jointly owned, in the large garden, allowing her to live independently under the watchful eye of her daughter.
Joan’s dementia crept up imperceptibly. In early May 2011, she became forgetful, with names and faces posing a particular puzzle.
That December, while gardening, she met Folan, who was walking past the house.
They fell into conversation and — with early dementia and a sociable personality removing any caution — she invited him in for a cup of tea.
Folan began to visit regularly, doing bits of shopping or DIY for Joan.
Daphne and her family were perplexed, but not unduly worried. Mum clearly liked his company. She could get lonely during the day since we both worked. It didn’t seem anything to get too concerned about.’
Within a month, it became clear to Daphne that Folan had moved in, since his clothes and other possessions were all over the house. She was speechless, but her mother — thanks to her forgetfulness — didn’t seem to mind.
‘I asked why he was there. Mum said his heating had broken so she had told him to stay and it carried on from there.’
Meanwhile, ‘Laddo’, somehow assumed a significant role in her life, positioning himself as a ‘carer’, complete with a key to her home. The response to this is to wonder why her family didn’t stop a stranger moving in.
‘I still have to battle with my own feelings of guilt and despair about this. And I know from the outside that would have been the obvious thing to do,’ says Daphne.
‘But it wasn’t so easy. How do you get him to leave?
‘After all, Mum was such a sociable person, she really liked this man’s company. And he was looking after her. She looked well, was always tidy, well dressed, happy and smiling.
‘I was literally across the garden but there was no sign of ill treatment. I was in charge of her finances because of legal power of attorney, so there was no threat to her savings.
‘We just thought we’d see how things panned out. We did go and speak to local social services about the situation. They came to investigate and said Mum seemed well cared for.’
However, over several months, the relationship between Folan and Daphne became strained as he assumed more control over her mother’s daily life.
Sometimes, he rarely spoke to Daphne, saying nothing as she sat and chatted with her mother. ‘He stopped speaking to me completely in October 2014, although I continued to visit my mother every night with my husband,’ remembers Daphne.
With the change in mood, and distinctly uncomfortable, Daphne felt Folan had to leave. She contacted her GP, the police, social services and even took legal advice. All advised that, in the absence of any harm, little could be done.
So why didn’t Daphne just move her mother into her own home?
‘Mum was getting so easily confused and forgetful. If she came over to our house, she immediately wanted to know when she could go home again. She was so comfortable in her own home.’ Joan died on March 26, 2016. Three days later, Folan dropped the bomb that they had married by presenting a marriage certificate to Joan’s GP.
The family immediately launched legal action, with Daphne advised by the police and lawyers not to directly confront Folan — much as she was desperate to do so.
However, she did contact the register office where the pair had married, angry at why no objection had been made about the irregular union.
‘I asked whether they thought it was strange that a 68-year-old man was marrying a 91-year-old woman with none of her relatives present.
‘I was told, “It’s not our job to judge.” That Mum seemed fine on the day, totally compos mentis.
‘This phrase really stuck in my mind, as I knew it was very far from the truth. Upon what authority, and with what knowledge, could a registrar use those words?’
Actually, in situations where there are potential predatory marriages, registrars have no formal training to test if a bride or groom has the required mental capacity to make the decision.
It’s a situation which Professor Clawson has identified through case studies. ‘Our research found that most rely on a “gut feeling” to recognise concerning cases and perceived they did not have the expertise to assess capacity, nor was it their job to do so.’
Better training for registrars is a key part of Daphne’s campaign to change the law.
‘I know the capacity for marriage is time-specific and decision-specific, but even on a “good” day my mother could barely say her own name and date of birth.
‘She had comprehensively failed the Mini Mental State Examination at the GP practice several years previously in 2011, and her dementia had worsened considerably since that time.’
After her portion of her mother’s house was sold to Folan in 2018, Daphne felt she couldn’t bear to be near him. The family decided to sell up and move to Skipton, North Yorkshire. Folan, meanwhile, has moved on.
Daphne’s despair has not abated: ‘In all her medical notes, it states Mum had dementia. It’s why she did not have the capacity to marry. If she knew her children had been unable to go to her funeral — never mind being disinherited — she would have been distraught.’
Before moving away, Daphne saw Folan outside the house and spoke to him for the first and last time since her mother’s death.
‘I said to him: “If Mum knew what you had done she would have had utter contempt.” He didn’t respond and just went into his house.’
‘There is nothing more I can do for Mum. But we have to change the law. I never want anyone to suffer the way we have.’
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