Capacity to Marry and Predatory Marriages

Historically, the courts have found that a person needs only a very low level of mental capacity in order to marry and persons suffering from significant mental impairments may still be capable of entering into a marriage. The question is whether the person has an understanding of who they want to live with and some understanding that it will be an exclusively mutually supportive relationship until death or divorce.

The recent case of Devore-Thompson v. Poulain, 2017 BCSC 1289 is the first reported case in British Columbia where the court has set aside a marriage due to incapacity.

In 2005, Ms. Walker was first diagnosed with probable Alzheimer’s disease. She met Mr. Poulain in 2006 at a local mall when he asked her for five dollars and her address and phone number. Following this encounter they began a relationship. By early 2007, Ms. Walker had difficulty caring for herself, was frequently confused, and had her driver’s license revoked. By 2008, Mr. Poulain was staying overnight at Ms. Walker’s home one or twice a month. In 2009, she executed a will which benefited Mr. Poulain, and the following year, she married him. Ms. Walker’s family members only found out about the marriage after the fact. Within a few months of the marriage, she was found to be incapable of managing her financial affairs and placed in a care facility. Throughout this time Ms. Walker denied that there was anything wrong with her, and maintained she was living independently.

After Ms. Walker’s death, the niece applied to the court to have the marriage and the will set aside. The niece presented evidence suggesting that Mr. Poulain had manipulated Ms. Walker to make large bank withdrawals, and to make her believe that her family was stealing from her. There was also evidence that Ms. Walker’s condition had progressively deteriorated since her diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease to the point that she could no longer remember how to cook, use a phone or utensils, clean or care for herself,

In stark contrast to the evidence submitted by witnesses for the niece, Mr. Poulain denied there was anything wrong with Ms. Walker’s mental health, denied he had any financial motivation, and claimed they had married for love.

The judge found that at the date of the marriage ceremony, Ms. Walker was highly vulnerable to others, had no insight or understanding as to the extent of her impairment, and was not able to understand the implications of marriage to Mr. Poulain, even at an emotional level. The judge further found that her mental capacity was such that she could not have formed an intention to live with Poulain, nor could she understand the concept of a “lifetime bond”. The judge set aside both the marriage and the will.

This decision presents a strong example for future claims where a party seeks to set aside a predatory marriage on the basis that the person lacked the requisite decisional capacity to enter into the contract of marriage.