Mental Capacity Required to Live Apart From Spouse Is Low, While Capacity to Instruct a Lawyer Is High

Fuhr ( Litigation Guardian of) v. Tingey 2013 BCSC 711 dealt with the issues of whether a claimant had sufficient mental capacity to instruct counsel in divorce proceedings. the claimant died before trial, and while the issue then became moor, the Court provided reason for judgment so that the matter of costs could be dealt with.In this case, the court was faced with conflicting evidence of capacity and thus the summary trial based on affidavits could not be resolved, and the matter would have been referred to the trial list. In Wolfman-Stotland v. Stotland 2011 BCCA 175, the issue was whether Mrs. Stotland had the capacity necessary to form the intention to live separate and apart to support the application for a s. 57 declaration. Mrs. Stotland suffered from mild to moderate cognitive impairment and was not capable of managing her financial affairs. She was examined by a doctor, who concluded that she likely had the capacity to instruct counsel on the matter of her divorce.

[32] The Court of Appeal stated:

[23] In A.B. v. C.D., the husband, who opposed the granting of a s. 57 declaration, conceded that his wife had general capacity to manage her affairs and to instruct counsel. The husband sought a medical examination under then Rule 30(1) to establish that his wife suffered from a delusional disorder that informed her intention to live separate and apart. The chambers judge, in reasons indexed as 2008 BCSC 1155, concluded that since the wife had the capacity to conduct her own affairs and to instruct counsel, her adverse mental condition, if it existed, had no bearing on the issues to be determined in the divorce proceeding.

[24] On appeal, this Court upheld the chambers judge and adopted the comments in Professor Robertson’s text, Mental Disability and the Law in Canada, 2d ed. (Toronto: Carswell, 1994) referred to by the chambers judge at paras. 23-24 of his reasons:

[23] The capacity to form the intention to live separate and apart is discussed in Professor Gerald B. Robertson’s Mental Disability and the Law in Canada, 2nd ed., (Toronto: Carswell, 1994) at 272:

Where it is the mentally ill spouse who is alleged to have formed the intention to live separate and apart, the court must be satisfied that that spouse possessed the necessary mental capacity to form that intention. This is probably similar to capacity to marry, and involves an ability to appreciate the nature and consequences of abandoning the martial relationship.

[24] Professor Robertson went on to discuss the capacity to marry at pp. 253-254:

In order to enter into a valid marriage, each party must be capable, at the date of the marriage, of understanding the nature of the contract of marriage and the duties and responsibilities which it creates…. The test does not, of course, require the parties to be capable of understanding all the consequences of marriage; as one English judge aptly noted, few (if any) could satisfy such a test. …the common law test is probably only concerned with the legal consequences and responsibilities which form an essential part of the concept of marriage. Thus, if the parties are capable of understanding that the relationship is legally monogamous, indeterminable except by death or divorce, and involves mutual support and cohabitation, capacity is present. The reported cases indicate that the test is not a particularly demanding one. As was said in the leading English decision, “the contract of marriage is a very simple one, which does not require a high degree of intelligence to comprehend”.

… Capacity to marry may exist despite incapacity in other legal matters. This necessarily follows from the fact that the requirements of legal capacity vary significantly as between different areas of law, and must be applied specifically to the particular act or transaction which is in issue. Thus, for example, a person may lack testamentary capacity yet have capacity to marry. Similarly, a person may be capable of marrying despite having been declared mentally incompetent and having had a property guardian or guardian of the person appointed.

[25] This Court ultimately concluded:

[36] In summary, disordered or delusional thinking which may contribute to an individual’s intention to live separate and apart, does not diminish that individual’s capacity to form that intention, provided it does not reach the level of incapacity that interferes with the ability to manage his or her own affairs and instruct counsel. In this case, there is no probative value to the evidence the husband seeks to obtain by his R. 30(1) application as the wife admittedly has the higher level of capacity to manage her own affairs. As a result, the wife’s mental condition, even if she was found to be suffering from delusional disorder, cannot be an issue in the proceeding.

[26] A useful discussion of the hierarchy of levels of capacity is found in Calvert at paras. 54-56:

[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. (I note that Mr. Birnbaum felt that, in August 1994, he would have taken instructions for a will but for Dr. Hogan’s concern about her ability to instruct counsel.) While Mrs. Calvert may have lacked the ability to instruct counsel, that did not mean that she could not make the basic personal decision to separate and divorce.

[27] As the authorities make clear, the capacity to form the intention to live separate and apart has been accepted as equivalent to the capacity to enter into a marriage. As the Court stated in Calvert, the intention to separate requires the lowest level of understanding. The requisite capacity is not high, and is lower in the hierarchy than the capacity to manage one’s affairs.

Trevor Todd

Trevor Todd is one of the province’s most esteemed estate litigation lawyers. He has spent more than 40 years helping the disinherited contest wills and transfers – and win. From his Kerrisdale office, which looks more like an eclectic art gallery than a lawyer’s office, Trevor empowers claimants and restores dignity to families across BC. He is a mentor to young entrepreneurs and an art buff who supports starving artists the world over. He has an eye for talent and a heart for giving back.

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