What is a “Predatory Marriage”?
No, it’s not when a T-Rex and a lion live happily ever after… (Sorry… terrible joke!)
“Predatory marriage” is a term used to describe a situation where a perpetrator uses marriage as a tool to financially exploit a vulnerable person. In the case of Hunt v Worrod 2017 ONSC 7397 (“Hunt”), the Honourable Justice E.J Koke of the Ontario Superior Court dealt with a clear case of predatory marriage.
Hunt involved a 50 year old man named Kevin Hunt who suffered a catastrophic brain injury after being involved in an ATV accident. He was in a coma for 18 days and spent approximately 4 months in the hospital. He was also awaiting a $1 million injury settlement in relation to the accident. Mr. Hunt was released into the care of his two sons, who were trained on how to care for him, assist in his rehabilitation and administer his mediation.
Three days after Mr. Hunt’s release, he went missing without his medication. His sons eventually tracked him down at a hotel in Collingwood, Ontario, where he had been taken by his on-again-off-again girlfriend, Kathleen Worrod. Mr. Hunt and Ms. Worrod had been wed earlier that afternoon, to the great shock of Mr. Hunt’s entire family. The police released Mr. Hunt into the care of his sons. Mr. Hunt’s sons then brought a legal challenge to the marriage in Ontario Superior Court.
The primary legal issues in Hunt were whether Mr. Hunt had the capacity to marry Ms. Worrod and, depending on how that question is answered, what was the impact on Ms. Worrod’s entitlement to Mr. Hunt’s property.
Justice Koke reviewed the law around the capacity to marry, both in legislation and in the common law. Section 7 of the Ontario Marriage Act simply states that “No person shall issue a licence to or solemnize the marriage of any person who, based on what he or she knows or has reasonable grounds to believe, lacks mental capacity to marry by reason of being under the influence of intoxicating liquor or drugs or for any other reason.” At common law, a person is capable of entering into a marriage contract only if he or she has the capacity to understand the nature of the contract and duties and responsibilities it creates. This is partly informed by whether the person can manage themselves and their affairs. Reduced cognitive abilities on their own may not make a person incapable of entering into a marriage as long as that person is capable of managing their own affairs.
Justice Koke went on to elaborate that the tension in the analysis of whether a person has the capacity to enter into a marriage contract is between preserving a person’s personal autonomy against the possibility that the person did not fully understand how the marriage affected his legal status or contractual obligations. The onus was on the applicants, Mr. Hunt’s sons, to prove that Mr. Hunt did not have the requisite capacity to marry at the time of his marriage to Ms. Worrod.
In this case, given the treatment that Mr. Hunt had received just prior to the marriage, there was extensive medical evidence regarding his capacity to enter into the marriage. He had been seeing a case manager, a speech language pathologist, an occupational therapist, a psychologist and a rehabilitation support worker during his time in the hospital. His treatment team had charted “significant impairments” in his ability to make decisions, solve problems, plan, organize and execute tasks. His driver’s license had been revoked by the Ministry of Transportation due to his decreased processing speed and reaction time, as well as issues with attention and self-neglect. A Certificate of Incapacity to manage property had been issued and the Office of the Public Guardian and Trustee had become Mr. Hunt’s statutory guardian of property. One of his caregivers had observed that “Mr. Hunt was not able to demonstrate familiarity with nor appreciation for his financial circumstances to allow management strategy and was also unable to retain information of a financial nature which was shared with him” (para.23). A number of medical professionals testified on behalf of the applicants, giving evidence in respect of Mr. Hunt’s diminished cognitive abilities, impulsive behaviour and poor judgment. Additionally, “virtually everybody who has every worked with Mr. Hunt…noted that he lacked the ability to be self-aware, particularly about his impairments” which was a “huge barrier to his safety” (para.45.)
Further, as Mr. Hunt and Ms. Worrod had been involved in a lengthy on/off relationship prior to the accident, there was proof that Mr. Hunt had considered and subsequently rejected the idea of marrying Ms. Worrod earlier. Prior to the accident, Mr. Hunt had communicated to many family members that he was “done with” Ms. Worrod, particularly due to her substance abuse issues. Mr. Hunt and Mr. Worrod had owned a home together but they had prepared and executed a Separation Agreement and Mr. Hunt had paid Ms. Worrod out of her interest in the home.
Justice Koke determined that “Mr. Hunt had not only made up his mind not to marry Ms. Worrod prior to the accident but [he] also…did not have the requisite mental capacity to marry Ms. Worrod following his accident” (para. 90).
Justice Koke found that, due to Mr. Hunt not understanding the nature of the contract he was entering into nor the responsibilities the contract created, and given that he was incapable of managing his own affairs, the marriage was void ab initio – i.e., it was never legitimate and ought to be treated as if it had never happened. Additionally, Ms. Worrod was found to have no legitimate interest in or claim to Mr. Hunt’s property and was permanently restrained from contacting Mr. Hunt.
Due to the amount of medical evidence in support of a finding of incapacity, Mr. Hunt was particularly well-suited to a finding that he lacked the requisite capacity to marry Ms. Worrod. For more information on this case, as well as information on “red flags” to look out for, click here.