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"Unsound Mind" and the Capacity to Marry in California

“Unsound Mind” and the Capacity to Marry in California

Mental competence is a term often heard in the course of various legal proceedings. We have all heard of criminal defendants being evaluated for competence to stand trial, or of wills being challenged on the basis of the maker not being “of sound mind and body.”

Contracts are also subject to mental capacity requirements, and while marriage is considered a matter of the heart, it is a legal contract. The California Family Code says that for a marriage to be valid, the parties must first be consenting, and then must be capable of making the contract of marriage.

Under California law, there is a rebuttable presumption that people are mentally capable of making decisions such as whether to marry or enter into other kinds of contracts. The Due Process in Competency Determinations Act provides a framework for rebutting the presumption of competence in cases where a person may be of unsound mind. The Act gives examples of mental functions to be considered in assessing mental competence, such as information processing, thought processing, and general alertness. Any deficit in one of these areas may cause a finding of incompetence if it impairs the person’s ability to appreciate the consequences of his or her actions.

Capacity to make a marriage contract by persons with mental deficiencies, however, is treated a little more favorably under the law than capacity for other legal transactions. Specifically, a person with a mental deficit for whom a conservator has been appointed is not automatically considered incapable of marrying. Rather, he or she is free to marry unless his conservator, a relative, friend, or other interested party petitions a court to intervene.

In that case, the law allows a court to order a determination to be made as to competence. In the course of a hearing on the matter, testimony may be heard from any interested party who can provide relevant information regarding the conservatee’s mental state. In this way, the law provides special treatment for the rite of marriage in cases of persons with mental disabilities. Rather than discouraging marriage, it encourages and protects the rights of people to marry, while also protecting those who truly lack the capability to make a marriage contract.

The attorneys at The Law Offices of Judy L. Burger have extensive experience in family law, including cases involving the capacity to enter a marriage contract. Make the call today to learn how our attorneys can help protect your rights or those of a loved one: (415) 298-8314.