The Kentucky Supreme Court considered whether an elderly man, declared incompetent and disabled, can divorce the woman who serves as his guardian and conservator.
Elmer Riehle petitioned for the dissolution of his marriage to Carolyn Riehle in August 2013. The Boone District Court, then, entered an order dismissing the petition because Kentucky law states that an incompetent person may not bring or maintain an action for dissolution of marriage.
Elmer appealed the order dismissing his case, which the Kentucky Supreme Court had a struggle deciding on.
Elmer and Carolyn Riehle’s Background
In 2008, Elmer Riehle squandered thousands of dollars from marital funds overseas through an internet pyramid scheme — at least, according to his wife Carolyn. He believed he was sending the money to a royal Nigerian prince.
When it got to a point where he even sold their lawnmower just to make the monthly wire transfer, she had to bring it to court.
Seeking to have Elmer declared incompetent, Carolyn filed a guardianship petition to the Boone District Court. Following a jury trial, the Kentucky jury deemed him disabled and named her as his guardian and conservator. In addition, Elmer got a financial restriction — $200 per month — which he apparently resented.
Consequently, Elmer twice sought to have the disability determination as well as his wife’s guardianship dissolved. Needless to say, he was unsuccessful. A jury trial in 2010 confirmed and re-appointed Carolyn as his guardian and conservator — without limitations and an expiration date.
His next step was to file for divorce in the Supreme Court, which he did in August of 2013, and named Carolyn (in her individual capacity) as the respondent.
Kentucky Supreme Court’s Decision
Elmer’s lawyer, Steven Megerle, asked the Kentucky Supreme Court on his behalf to overturn a 1943 state law that doesn’t authorize a mentally incompetent individual to file for divorce.
“A person can be deemed disabled but I believe that if they can show what their true feelings and intentions are, I don’t think that they should be locked up by their guardian,” the attorney said.
On the other hand, court documents show that Carolyn’s attorney Michael McKinney wrote this: “In such a scenario, the worst fears of Carolyn would be realized as Elmer is fleeced and drained by his enablers, and left out on the street when he has no longer has any ability to support himself.”
The justices seemed to struggle with the decision. After all, Elmer did send out thousands of dollars to scammers, but up until a year before the trial, he had a car and could drive anywhere he wanted to.
“For somebody who is totally mentally incompetent,” Justice Mary Noble said, “that seems a little absurd.”
Noble’s main concern, however, was at what point the guardianship prohibited him from making personal decisions. If the court allowed the divorce, Carolyn still would have been Elmer’s legal guardian — a position which, Megerle said, Elmer would ask the court to have somebody else fill.
In the end, the trial court entered an order dismissing Elmer’s petition. They firmly stated that, according to Kentucky state laws, an incompetent person cannot bring or maintain any action for the dissolution of marriage.
Carolyn and Elmer both did not attend the hearing that led to the decision.