George Chuvalo lacks capacity to decide on his marriage, judge rules
Legendary Canadian boxer, 80, doesn’t have the cognitive ability to make a decision on whether to reconcile with his wife amid a bitter family dispute.
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Ontario Superior Court Justice Frances Kiteley ruled Friday that legendary Canadian boxer George Chuvalo, who is in significant cognitive decline, “does not have capacity to decide whether to reconcile” with his wife of 24 years.
After two years of bitter legal wrangling between Chuvalo’s children — who have effectively sought to divorce their father from their stepmother — and Joanne Chuvalo, who wants to remain married, divorce proceedings began Monday.
Kiteley read excerpts of her decision late Friday afternoon in a ninth-floor courtroom at 393 University Ave. Joanne, 61, was in attendance but Chuvalo, Canada’s former heavyweight champion who famously fought Muhammad Ali in 1966, was not.
Kiteley also urged the family to “bury the hatchet” in order to decide the best plans for Chuvalo, 80, “in his remaining years while he continues to experience inevitable decline.”
While Kiteley noted “there is evidence that Mr. Chuvalo says he wants to live with his wife,” she said the decision to reconcile is more complex than simply saying so. “Expressing a desire to live with his wife is just that,” Kiteley read from her decision.
“There is no evidence that he understood whether there would be consequences to a decision to ‘live with’ his wife. Indeed, there are consequences such as changing the financial status quo between them . . . There are other consequences such as the emotional impact if the attempted reconciliation fails.”
Joanne listened attentively to Kiteley, then quietly left the courtroom with her lawyers and her sister. Chuvalo married Joanne in 1994, just months after the death of his first wife, Lynne.
In a separate proceeding, Joanne is still seeking guardianship of her husband. Chuvalo’s children Mitchell and Vanessa have power of attorney, the validity of which Joanne disputes.
Chuvalo is now under the court-ordered legal protection of the Office of the Public Guardian and Trustee. He was in court Monday for the trial opening — the only day he appeared — when he was told by Kiteley that his ongoing attendance was not required, though he was welcome to be in court if he wished.
Originally, Kiteley was to rule on whether Chuvalo had the capacity to decide whether to divorce or reconcile.
The couple has been living apart for several years. The date of separation and whether there was intent to separate were in dispute, court was told.
“I acknowledge that by finding that George Chuvalo does not have the capacity to decide whether to reconcile, it appears to be implicit that there was a separation,” Kiteley read from her ruling.
“I am not deciding whether Mr. Chuvalo did separate from Ms. Chuvalo and did have an intention to live separate and apart from her . . . If that is an issue, it will be addressed in a future trial.”
At the outset of the trial, Chuvalo’s legal team submitted geriatric psychiatric analysis to the court, saying Chuvalo “did not have the capacity to instruct counsel.” When Kiteley appointed the public guardian’s office, Chuvalo’s previous counsel then ceased to act for him.
As part of her Friday decision, Kiteley said she considered expert opinions from two geriatric psychiatrists who assessed Chuvalo in 2017: Dr. Richard Shulman and Dr. Heather Gilley.
Shulman had assessed Chuvalo several times last spring and twice in November. Gilley assessed him in August and September. Both experts opined in their most recent reports that Chuvalo was incapable of instructing counsel. However, the psychiatrists differed about the former boxer’s capacity to seek marital reconciliation or divorce.
Gilley wrote in her report that Chuvalo “knows he wants to live with (Joanne) and remain married to her” and that he understands the facts of his marital status and the facts of separation and divorce. Gilley wrote that in her opinion, “George Chuvalo is capable of making the decision to divorce Joanne Chuvalo.”
Gilley was not called as a witness.
In Shulman’s latest report, dated Dec. 20, 2017, he wrote that in his clinical opinion “George is no longer able to appreciate the consequences of his choices in regard to the matrimonial proceedings.”
“Cognitive tasks required for appreciation include realistic appraisal of outcome and justification of choice,” Shulman’s report continued.
“It is an examination of the line of reasoning employed by the person in making decisions. George does not demonstrate a satisfactory ability to appreciate the potential consequences of reconciliation or divorce,” Shulman wrote in his expert opinion assessment.
Shulman, who testified Monday, told the court that in the spring Chuvalo said he was concerned that his wife’s reconciliation desire was motivated by financial gain. The psychiatrist told the court that later in the year, Chuvalo’s cognitive ability had sharply declined and that Chuvalo no longer had the ability to consider “all the risk evaluation” associated with making a decision to reconcile.
“It was all lost,” Shulman testified.
In her decision, Kiteley said she relied on the report, the evidence and the expert opinion of Dr. Shulman for several reasons, including the fact he “was able to provide his opinion on a ‘before and after’ analysis (of Chuvalo over 2017).
“His evidence is valuable and assists the court in arriving at the decision,” Kiteley wrote.
The judge has called for a case conference in early March to discuss “next steps.”
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