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Kentucky Supreme Court Weighs Mental Health In Divorce

Kentucky Supreme Court Chamber
Creative Commons
Kentucky Supreme Court Chamber

A Boone County man wants a divorce, but hasn’t been able to get one because he is deemed mentally incompetent under the law.

Mentally incompetent Kentuckians aren’t allowed to get divorces due to a 1943 state Supreme Court decision.

But on Friday, Kentucky’s highest court heard arguments over whether Elmer Riehle should be allowed to divorce his wife Carolyn, also his legal guardian since he was declared mentally incompetent in 2013.

Steven Megerle, Elmer Riehle’s attorney, argued that his client is competent enough to file for divorce and shouldn’t be treated differently from anyone else seeking to end a marriage.

“He is a married person seeking a divorce and his inability to divorce adversely affects the equitable dissolution of his marital estate and also his ability to marry someone else if he so chooses,” Megerle said.

Riehle, now 88 years old, first filed for divorce in 2013. The petition was denied by both the Boone County Circuit Court and the Kentucky Court of Appeals.

In 2008, Carolyn Riehle successfully sought to have Elmer declared mentally incompetent “to preserve their financial stability,” according to a brief written by her attorney, Michael McKinney.

“Elmer had a penchant for “get rich quick” schemes and was particularly vulnerable to scammers and con artists,” the brief states.

During Friday’s hearing, McKinney argued that Carolyn still cares for Elmer and has tried to protect him from getting scammed.

“Once she would stop his ability to get money from one source, he would find another or he would sell their lawnmower,” McKinney said. “He would come up with different ways to have cash to send wire transfers to Nigeria.”

According to court documents, Elmer Riehle’s only income is a monthly $200 Social Security check. Carolyn Riehle is 72 years old and makes about $50,000 a year as a nurse.

Justice Mary Noble questioned if Elmer Riehle's mental capacity for handling financial matters and making more personal decisions were the same.

“At what point does guardianship prohibit a person from making a very personal decision,” she asked. “Does he have enough mental status where he can understand that he can’t live with that woman another day?”

According to Elmer Riehle’s attorney, Kentucky is one of 10 states that prohibits mentally incompetent people from getting a divorce.

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