Predatory Marriages: knowing what it means to say “I do.”
The interplay between evolving social norms and the legal foundations that predate or accelerate these changes has seen significant development in the last decade. Courts of law and of public opinion have made important strides in shaping social policy in many areas, such as medically-assisted death, gender diversity and inclusion, and marriage rights, to name a few. A recent case out of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice considered this last issue, marriage rights, with a particular focus on predatory marriages.
In Hunt v Worrod, 2017 ONSC 7397, the Court was tasked with assessing whether an individual who had suffered a catastrophic brain injury possessed the necessary capacity to marry. In 2011, Kevin Hunt suffered a serious head injury following an ATV accident and spent four months recuperating in hospital. He was eventually discharged into the care of his two sons, but three days after his release, Mr. Hunt was whisked away by his on-and-off girlfriend, Kathleen Worrod, to be ostensibly married at a secret wedding ceremony.
Mr. Hunt’s children brought an application to the Court on his behalf to void the marriage, partly to preclude Ms. Worrod from accruing spousal rights to share in Mr. Hunt’s property or assets. Ultimately, the Court concluded that Mr. Hunt did not possess the requisite capacity to enter into the marriage.
In its reasons, the Court relied heavily on the opinions of several expert witnesses and the existing body of legal authority. The Court began by reviewing section 7 of Ontario’s Marriage Act, which provides that an officiant shall not “solemnize the marriage” of any person that the officiant has reasonable grounds to believe “lacks mental capacity to marry.”
The expert evidence tendered by the parties suggested that Mr. Hunt had significant impairments in his ability to make decisions, to engage in routine problem-solving, and to organize and carry out simple tasks. He was characterized as “significantly cognitively impaired”, and was assessed as being incapable of managing his property, personal care, or safety and well-being.
The Court subsequently relied on the test for capacity to enter into a marriage contract established by the British Columbia Supreme Court in Ross-Scott v Potvin in 2014. The Court held that a person has the capacity to enter into a marriage contract only if that person has the capacity to understand the duties and obligations created by marriage and the nature of the commitment more generally.
The Court also identified the tension between balancing Mr. Hunt’s autonomy as against the possibility that he lacked the capacity to appreciate the legal and social consequences of marriage. Ultimately, the Court was satisfied that Mr. Hunt’s children had met their burden of demonstrating that their father lacked the necessary capacity to marry Ms. Worrod. The marriage was declared void ab initio, and the attendant spousal property rights that would have otherwise flowed to Ms. Worrod were lost.
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