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Capacity to Marry: Devore-Thompson v. Poulain

Marriage has significant legal implications on the succession of property. Yet, I don’t come across either in my practice or my reading, that many cases where a marriage is challenged on the basis that someone did not have the mental capacity to marry. I certainly don’t see as many cases challenging the validity of a marriage as I do challenging the validity of a will or transfer of property.

In a recent decision, Devore-Thompson v. Poulain, 2017 BCSC 1289, Madam Justice Griffin found that Donna Walker did not have the capacity to marry on June 14, 2010, when she went through a marriage ceremony with Floyd Poulain. The validity of the marriage was challenged by Ms. Walker’s niece Donna Devore-Thompson, who was an executor named in a will Ms. Walker made before her marriage ceremony, and who was close with her.

The question of whether Ms. Walker had the capacity to marry is significant, because if she did have capacity and the marriage were valid, pursuant to the Wills Act, the marriage would have revoked all of her previous wills. Because she had no descendants, Mr. Poulain would be entitled to her estate as her surviving spouse on the basis that she died without a valid will. I should add that the Wills Act was revoked and replaced by the Wills, Estates and Succession Act on March 31, 2014. Although the new legislation no longer has a provision that says that a marriage revokes previous wills, the Wills Act still applies to revoke prior wills on marriage if the marriage took place before March 31, 2014 (unless the will was made in contemplation of the marriage).

The court also found that Ms. Walker did not have the mental capacity to make her will on July 2, 2009, or a previous will in February, 2007, but I will focus this post on her capacity to marry.

Madam Justice Griffin sets out in some detail the evidence of family, friends and others as well as expert evidence concerning Ms. Walker’s mental functioning. This is a sad story of Ms. Walker’s decline over several years to the point where she could no longer use eating utensils properly, didn’t appear to know how to use stairs, she had difficulty using a telephone and her grooming declined significantly. She became paranoid that family were trying to take her money, when there was no basis for such a suspicion.

The law on capacity to marry is set out in the decision as follows:

[43] The starting point for understanding the test for capacity to marry is the notion that a marriage is a contract. Similar to entering into any other type of contract, the contracting parties must possess the requisite legal capacity to enter the contract. [44] That said, the common law has developed a low threshold of capacity necessary for the formation of a marriage contract. The capacity to marry is a lower threshold than the capacity to manage one’s own affairs, make a will, or instruct counsel: see Wolfman-Stotland v. Stotland, 2011 BCCA 175 at para. 26, leave to appeal ref’d [2011] S.C.C.A. No 242 (S.C.C.), [Wolfman-Stotland]; and A.B. v. C.D., 2009 BCCA 200 at para. 27 [A.B.]. [45] In Hart v. Cooper, [1994] B.C.J. No. 159 (B.C.S.C.) at para. 30, Lowry J. described the prerequisites for marriage in the following manner, “a person is mentally capable of entering into a marriage contract only if he or she has the capacity to understand the nature of the contract and the duties and responsibilities it creates”. [46] In A.B., the Court of Appeal addressed the issue of marriage capacity. The Court accepted the characterization of capacity to enter a marriage as being equivalent to the capacity to form an intention to live separate and apart, which was restated in Wolfman-Stotland. In Wolfman-Stotland, the Court remarked that the capacity to marry requires “the lowest level of understanding” in the hierarchy of legal capacities. [47] In Wolfman-Stotland, the Court referred to Calvert (Litigation Guardian of) v. Calvert (1997), 32 O.R. (3d) 281 (Ont. Gen. Div.), aff’d (1998), 37 O.R. (3d) 221 (Ont. C.A.), leave to appeal ref’d [1998] S.C.C.A. No. 161 (S.C.C.), which contains a useful discussion of the hierarchy of capacities:[54] Separation is the simplest act, requiring the lowest level of understanding. A person has to know with whom he or she does or does not want to live. Divorce, while still simple, requires a bit more understanding. It requires the desire to remain separate and to be no longer married to one’s spouse. It is the undoing of the contract of marriage.

[55] The contract of marriage has been described as the essence of simplicity, not requiring a high degree of intelligence to comprehend: Park, supra, at p. 1427. If marriage is simple, divorce must be equally simple. The American courts have recognized that the mental capacity required for divorce is the same as required for entering into marriage: re: Kutchins, 136 A. 3d 45 (Ill., 1985).

[56] There is a distinction between the decisions a person makes regarding personal matters such as where or with whom to live and decisions regarding financial matters. Financial matters require a higher level of understanding. The capacity to instruct counsel involves the ability to understand financial and legal issues. This puts it significantly higher on the competency hierarchy. It has been said that the highest level of capacity is that required to make a will: Park, supra, at p. 1426. …

[48] The authorities suggest that the capacity to marry must involve some understanding of with whom a person wants to live and some understanding that it will have an effect on one’s future in that it will be an exclusive mutually supportive relationship until death or divorce. [49] I leave open the possibility that in some cases a marriage can take place without an immediate plan to live together, such as in a situation where two people work in different cities. But there is no suggestion in this case that the alleged Marriage was a long-distance one. Here Mr. Poulain claimed that he and Ms. Walker were living together. [50] A lack of capacity to marry will render a marriage void ab initio: Ross-Scottv. Potvin, 2014 BCSC 435 at para. 39.

Madam Justice Griffin, in finding that Ms. Walker did not have capacity at the time of the marriage ceremony, considered the types of factors a person entering into a marriage should be able to understand. She wrote:

[343] As of the date of the marriage ceremony, Ms. Walker was at a stage of her illness where she was highly vulnerable to others. She had no insight or understanding that she was impaired, did not recognize her reliance on Ms. Devore-Thompson and Ms. Devore-Thompson’s assistance, and was not capable of weighing the implications of marriage to Mr. Poulain even at the emotional level. [344] The fact that Ms. Walker told some people that she had married Floyd Poulain does not overcome all of the evidence as to her disordered thinking. This does not mean she had any understanding of what it means to be married. [345] It is also clear that Ms. Walker’s mental capacity had diminished to such an extent that by 2010 she could not have formed an intention to live with Mr. Poulain, or to form a lifetime bond. She did not understand, at that stage, what it meant to live together with another person, nor could she understand the concept of a lifetime bond. [346] Ms. Walker did not have a grip on the reality of her own existence and so could not grip the reality of a future lifetime with another person through marriage. [347] I find on the whole of the evidence, given her state of dementia, Ms. Walker could not know even the most basic meaning of marriage or understand any of its implications at the time of the Marriage including: who she was marrying in the sense of what kind of person he was; what their emotional attachment was; where they would be living and whether he would be living with her; and fundamentally, how marriage would affect her life on a day to day basis and in future. [348] I conclude that Ms. Walker did not have the capacity to enter the Marriage. [349] Since I have concluded that Ms. Walker did not have the capacity to enter the Marriage, the Marriage is void ab initio. Because the Marriage is void ab initio, s. 15 of the Wills Act does not apply and, therefore, the Marriage does not revoke the prior wills.

In British Columbia, a person who has lived in a marriage-like relationship with another for at least two years immediately before the other’s death has the same rights to property if the other dies without a will, and the same rights to apply to vary a will. There are quite a few cases dealing with whether there was in fact a marriage-like relationship, but I am not aware of any where a marriage-like relationship has been challenged on the basis that a person did not have the mental capacity to enter into a marriage-like relationship. It would be interesting to see how the factors the courts consider in determining whether a person has capacity to marry might be applied to a marriage-like relationship. One difference is that a legal marriage takes place at a certain time, while a marriage-like relationship develops over time. What if when two people begin cohabiting in a marriage-like relationship they both have capacity to marry, but one declines to the point where she would not have capacity to marry before they have been in a marriage-like relationship for two years?

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