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Court Denies 88-Year-Old Man's Divorce Due to Dementia

By George Khoury, Esq. on December 19, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

In the state of Kentucky, a mentally incompetent person cannot access the legal system except through their legal guardian. For 88-year-old Elmer Riehle, that means that in order to get a divorce, his wife, who is also his legal guardian, would have to file the divorce paperwork on his behalf. Talk about awkward. His wife does not want a divorce and wants to be able to protect Riehle from himself and from squandering the family's finances.

Riehle challenged the 1943 precedent set by the state's highest court that had basically stopped any mentally incompetent individuals from getting divorced since then. However, the state's Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of his wife, and denied his divorce filing.

When a person is declared incompetent and becomes in need of legal guardianship, frequently that individual struggles with, or resents, the lack of autonomy. When a spouse is made the legal guardian, it can often create friction in a relationship. However, in many states, a person who is declared incompetent may not be able to get a divorce unless their spouse allows or agrees to it. Even if the spouse will consent, state laws vary on whether guardians can even file for divorce on behalf of an incompetent individual.

Generally, one of the more significant reasons an incompetent person may seek a divorce is due to financial independence. In certain situations, a spouse may be better off divorced so that they can have more control over their social security benefits, or finances. Another significant reason that an incompetent spouse may want a divorce is due to new romance, which occurs in Alzheimer's and dementia patients more often than one might expect.

Riehle and his Internet Prince

Although some might have wanted Riehle's case to succeed on principle, looking at the facts is likely to give any rational person pause. Riehle had sent thousands of dollars off in various internet scams, and had fallen for the Nigerian royalty scam as well. His wife and guardian's primary concern seemed to be that, if divorced, Riehle would be swindled out of every penny.

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