Confidential Marriages as a Tool for Elder Abuse


Elder abuse is a growing problem in many states, but residents of California are particularly vulnerable due to the state's law allowing confidential marriages.

In California, couples are allowed to request a confidential marriage license. Unlike a standard marriage license, this document is not public record. Copies of the license can only be requested by the couple themselves or by someone presenting a court order to the county clerk in the county where the license is registered.

The confidential marriage option originated in 1878 as a way for clergymen to marry couples who had already been living together outside of marriage and wanted to make their union legal without friends or family knowing of the arrangement. Today, confidential marriage is sometimes used as part of a plot to defraud a vulnerable senior out of his or her hard-earned assets. When marriages are a matter of public record, it is easier for a senior's family to learn of the marriage and contest it in court while the victim is still able to be questioned.

A confidential marriage may be used to make an "omitted spouse" claim to assets from the senior's will. Under California's community property laws, spouses have a right to inherit assets even if they are not listed in the will. State law gives spouses the right to one-half of community property and up to one-half of the deceased spouse's separate property. Omitted spouses are allowed to claim their share of the estate unless the estate plan specifically disinherited them, they have received sufficient assets outside the estate, or there is a waiver of rights made via a prenuptial agreement.

How Can We Help?

When a confidential marriage is used as a tool for fraud, other heirs may contest the will in court. This process can be quite complicated, so the assistance of a qualified family attorney is a must. If you are in need of legal representation relating to an estate planning issue, please call our office at (626) 683-8113 or email us at