Incompetence to Maintain a Divorce Action: When Breaking Up Is Odd to Do
Mossman, Douglas, Shoemaker, Amanda N., St. John's Law Review
If a married person who has not been adjudicated incompetent1 seeks a divorce for reasons that sound very odd, bizarre, or crazy,2 how should the trial court3 respond? If the trial court knows a husband is seeking to divorce his wife for reasons that represent symptoms of a severe mental illness, but the husband understands the key factual implications of obtaining a divorce - ending the marriage, separating lives and property - should the trial court allow him to proceed? If not, how should the trial court respond to the husband's petition, and under what authority? In an era when "no-fault" and unilateral divorce laws offer unhappy spouses wide latitude to dissolve their marriages, when - if ever - should a psychotic motivation for seeking divorce justify a trial court's blocking the individual's desire?
Because a concrete example may help acquaint readers with the types of situations and mental symptoms addressed in this Article, we present the following fictional case history.4
A. Case Vignette
John Doe, a retired architect, married his wife Jane when they were both in their twenties. During their four-decade marriage, they struck all who knew them as a loving, happy couple. When their children reached their teens, Mrs. Doe started her own jewelry business. Two decades later, Mrs. Doe's company had more than twenty employees. Mr. Doe admired his wife's accomplishments as a businesswoman, and he often spoke of her success to their friends.
Two years into retirement, however, Mr. Doe began criticizing his wife for spending so much time away from home. Mrs. Doe actually was working fewer hours than previously, and she had delegated many business responsibilities to employees so that she and her husband could take long vacations together. A few months later, Mr. Doe became openly angry each time his wife left for work. One evening, Mrs. Doe asked her husband why he had been acting this way. 'You know exactly why!" Mr. Doe replied angrily. "Do you think I don't know what you do there all day?" Mr. Doe then told his wife that he knew she was seducing the young men she hired as managers. When Mrs. Doe laughed at what sounded like a ridiculous statement, her husband - previously a very even-tempered man - screamed at her and berated her for mocking him.
Mr. Doe's accusations continued over the next several months, and their relationship deteriorated. Mr. Doe had always let Mrs. Doe handle family finances because she was much better at this than he. Now, he spent hours going over the couple's bank statements and often claimed that funds were missing. When Mrs. Doe showed that this was not true by pointing out her husband's arithmetic errors, Mr. Doe accused her of tricking him and of establishing secret "trusts for trysts" where she stashed funds to support her lovers. When Mrs. Doe received an occasional business-related call at home, Mr. Doe insisted on speaking to the caller, and once he even pushed her aside so he could get to the phone first. He made copious notes about the phone calls' times and sources, and he asked callers rude questions.
Eventually, Mr. Doe refused to let callers speak to Mrs. Doe at all, telling her, "I love you, Jane, but if this continues, I'll have no choice but to call the IRS and the FBI." When Mrs. Doe asked what her husband was talking about, Mr. Doe told her he had finally "put two and two together." For some time, he had "heard rumors" that his wife's business success came from her participation in an international "diamond cartel," "back alley cash deals," and money laundering to hide income. The previous week, he had obtained "proof," because he had followed Mrs. Doe and had seen her meet with "smugglers disguised as Orthodox Jews." Mrs. Doe explained that the men were diamond merchants who had taken the train from New York City that morning to meet with her. "Those black hats and beards may fool the U.S. government," replied Mr. …