Marriage and Capacity: The Mental Competence Needed To Tie (and Untie) the Knot


Roughly half of all marriages in the United States eventually end in divorce.  The statistics are even bleaker in California, where the divorce rate hovers at around sixty percent.  In light of these odds, getting married in this day and age (and in a community property state, no less) hardly seems rational.  Well, the California Court of Appeal affirmed last month what many may have already suspected: when it comes to the mental capacity needed to enter into or end a marriage, the bar is not set very high.

In the case of In re Marriage of Greenway (2013) 217 Cal.App.4th 628, Joann Greenway appealed from the trial court’s ruling that her husband, Lyle Greenway, was mentally capable of seeking a divorce.  After 48 years of marriage, Lyle sought legal separation based on irreconcilable differences.  Joann objected to ending the marriage or dividing the estate, which was valued at several million dollars.  She argued that Lyle, who was 76 at the time and in poor health, was mentally incompetent to maintain a dissolution action.  Based on the testimony and written arguments from Lyle, Joann, their children, and four healthcare professionals who evaluated Lyle’s mental state, the court concluded that Lyle was mentally capable of making a reasoned decision to end his marriage.  The court granted Lyle’s request for status-only dissolution.  On appeal, Joann argued insufficiency of the evidence.

The Court of Appeal began its analysis by observing that the determination of a person’s mental capacity is fact specific, and can be measured on a sliding scale depending on the issue at hand: on the high end of the scale is the mental capacity required to enter contracts, followed by testamentary capacity (falling somewhere in the middle range), and, at the lowest end of the scale, marital capacity.  217 Cal.App.4th at 637.  The court noted that there is a “large body of case authority reflecting an extremely low level of mental capacity needed before making the decision to marry or execute a will,” and that “even a person under a conservatorship, who is generally without contractual power, may be deemed to have marital capacity.”  Id at 640 (citing Prob. Code § 1900).  The court further cited the presumption within the Probate Code supporting a finding of the required mental capacity to marry.  Id at 638 (citing Prob. Code § 810).

In affirming the trial court’s ruling, the court concluded that, like the capacity required to begin a marriage, the capacity required to end one’s marriage is subject to a low threshold.  Id at 640.

The court also reaffirmed the standard for obtaining a divorce in California: “irreconcilable differences,” which is defined as “substantial reasons for not continuing the marriage and which make it appear the marriage should be dissolved”.  Fam. Code § 2311.  The “irreconcilable differences” ground is “purposely broad” and “intended to represent the actual reasons underlying marital breakdowns and at the same time make irrelevant questions of ‘fault’ or misconduct by either party.”  Greenway, 217 Cal.App.4th 628, 647.

While Marriage of Greenway and similar cases setting a relatively lower standard for marital capacity may appear to undermine the institution of marriage, in fact, such cases reflect the recognition that the right to marry is a precious fundamental right.  Likewise, Probate Code sections 810 and 1900 underscore courts’ long-standing view that the incapacity to marry must be explicitly proven.  Just as the “irreconcilable difference” standard recognizes that the reasons a marriage fails cannot always be precisely defined, the presumption in favor of finding marital capacity acknowledges that a purely rational basis for getting married may not always be articulable.  And, if Ambrose Bierce was correct that “love is a temporary insanity curable by marriage,” there may be no quicker route to mental clarity than saying “I do.”

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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