Husband Asks Kentucky Supreme Court to Let Him Divorce Despite His Mental Incapacity
Should you be allowed to end a marriage if you’re found mentally incapacitated? “Until death do us part,” takes on a different meaning for Elmer Riehle, a Kentucky resident who was denied, twice, the ability to divorce his wife. Asking the Court to overturn a 1943 decision finding that state law did not authorize a mentally incompetent person to divorce, Riehle brought his case all the way to the Kentucky Supreme Court. There, Riehle argued that even a disabled person can show their true feelings and intentions.
Riehle’s wife sought help from a lower Kentucky court to declare her husband mentally incompetent because he had been sending thousands of dollars oversees to someone he believed to be a “Nigerian royal prince.” Riehle was convinced he was going to get back $23 million out of the deal.
Although Riehle seemed to be functioning well in other aspects of his life, the court eventually granted the wife’s request and appointed her guardian of Riehle’s estate, at which point she restricted his income to $200 per month. In return, he filed for divorce. Now, his wife claims Riehle isn’t aware of what he’s doing or the fact that he’s requesting a divorce. Since Kentucky precedent says a mentally incompetent person cannot divorce, Riehle appealed the case all the way to the state Supreme Court.
The Law Presumes Capacity
If a court can determine a spouse at least has the capability of making a reasoned decision to end a marriage, they’ll typically allow a divorce proceeding to move forward.
Currently, only ten states bar those deemed mentally incompetent from divorcing. In most states, the bar isn’t very high to be judged mentally competent to enter into or end a marriage. However, this also doesn’t mean there aren’t any rules.
The requirements of marriage are fairly straightforward—consent, age, and mental capacity are required. The first two are givens, but what counts as mental capacity? The law presumes parties have the mental capacity to make the decision to get married. Each party to a marriage needs to be of “sound” mind and capable of agreeing to the marriage. Seems simple, right? Well, what about for a divorce? Do the same rules apply?
Generally, yes. The law still presumes parties have the mental capacity to make a decision regarding divorce and any diagnosis of a mental disorder isn’t enough, alone, to render a person legally incapacitated. The parameters for determining whether or not a person is legally incapacitated is typically decided in probate court and it’s going to be determined on a case-by-case basis rather than a straight-line rule.
Take California probate courts, for example. Courts in California have held numerous times that when it comes to executing a will, “old age, feebleness, forgetfulness, filthy personal habits, personal eccentricities, failure to recognized old friends or relatives, physical disability, absent-mindedness, and mental confusion” are not enough alone to determine testamentary incapacity. Similarly, it’s going to take much more to determine mental inability to divorce.
Mental Capacity Is Important, But It’s Not an End All Be All
Roughly half of all marriages in the United States end in divorce. Although those numbers appear to be decreasing, mental disorders are being diagnosed more frequently which means the issues surrounding the capacity to divorce only increase. With marriage being a fairly easily attainable feat, shouldn’t divorce be just as simple?
As mentioned, the standard is low and this generally means a mentally incapacitated person only needs to be able to exercise their own judgement (not necessarily in all matters) and express an intention to end a marriage. It’s not enough alone to express it at the onset of divorce—all parties must be able to maintain that same capabilities throughout the remainder of the divorce proceeding.
This can be done alone, through a conservatorship or through representation by and through a court-appointed guardian, if state law allows. This is what most states will do in order to proceed forward with a divorce where one party is found mentally incompetent, especially if they’re not the party initiating the divorce.
Normally a spouse would be the best person to be appointed a guardian, but in the case of divorce, there’s obviously a conflict of interest, as in Riehle’s case. So, the next best person is most likely going to be a court-appointed attorney. Anyone appointed is going to have a fiduciary duty to act in the best interest of the party they’re representing. It’s a fair compromise for those couples wanting a divorce when one party may be mentally incapacitated and certainly a step Kentucky should consider allowing.