Last week, an Ontario judge found that George Chuvalo, Canada’s former heavyweight champion, who is 80 and has experienced significant cognitive decline, does not have the mental capacity needed to decide whether to reconcile with his wife of almost 25 years.

What Happened?

George Chuvalo and his current wife eloped and were married in 1994, three months after the death of Chuvalo’s first wife. A year after the elopement, the couple married in a Catholic ceremony. The relationship caused controversy in the family, coming on the heels of the death of his first wife and several other shared family tragedies.

In the first few years of the marriage, the couple experienced financial hardship, initially living with Chuvalo’s mother-in-law. In time, their financial outlook improved. In 1997, the wife started a drug awareness campaign company, for which Chuvalo made public appearances and assisted in arranging drug treatment for addicts. The couple worked closely together and Chuvalo’s post-boxing career grew. The couple eventually purchased three properties, one in Caledon, one in Toronto, and one in cottage country, all registered in the wife’s name.

In 2015, Chuvalo’s adult children filed for divorce on behalf of their father under power of attorney, claiming that he had “significant cognitive impairment”.  They claimed that the couple had an argument in 2013 and their father was asked to leave the Caledon home. He moved to the Toronto home where his mother-in-law and brother-in-law were living. Since then, the children have filed affidavits, power-of-attorney documents and mental capacity assessment with the court, accusing their stepmother of various things including brainwashing, kidnapping, extortion, and reckless spending. None of these allegations have been proven.

The Wife’s Position

According to the Toronto Star, Chuvalo’s wife (a registered nurse, aged 61) says that she and Chuvalo never formally separated in 2013 (despite earlier court filings indicating that they had), and that they continue to be in love. She says that Chuvalo had stopped by the Toronto home in 2013, found it infested with bed bugs and remained there to avoid contaminating the Caledon home. The full bed bug eradication process took eight months, during which he remained in the Toronto home.

The wife claims that “a gang of conspirators” which include Chuvalo’s children from his first marriage are “stashing him” in seniors’ residences throughout the GTA in order to prevent her from seeing him and that the children are pushing for a “sham divorce”. She also claims that Chuvalo returns to her whenever he can now to “escape” his handlers. She argues that the children’s power-of-attorney is invalid and that Chuvalo submitted a handwritten revocation of that document but it was ignored.

The wife continues to live in the Caledon home where she says she is responsible for taxes, insurance, and maintenance for that home and the other two properties.

Mental Capacity and Divorce

Chuvalo’s ability to make independent decisions is a key consideration in the divorce application. In a sworn statement dated 2015, Chuvalo’s son attested that his father’s memory has diminished to the point where he could not longer be trusted to govern his affairs.

Chuvalo has a long history as a boxer, having fought other big-name fighters including Muhammad Ali Joe Frazier, and George Foreman. His record stands at 93 fights, 73 wins, 18 losses and 2 draws, and includes 64 knockouts. He himself has “never kissed the canvas” (i.e. never been knocked out).

The medical experts who have examined Chuvalo as part of the ongoing divorce proceedings did not definitively conclude that repeated blows to the head from boxing could have triggered the current alleged cognitive issues, but his long history in the sport was noted as was his equally lengthy history of concussions.

The Court on Chuvalo’s Capacity

Justice Frances Kiteley found that Chuvalo “does not have the capacity to decide whether to reconcile” with his wife. Justice Kiteley read excerpts of her decision (a written copy of which is not yet available) to the courtroom last week, noting that the decision to reconcile is more complicated than simply saying so. The evidence suggests that Chuvalo has said that he wants to live with his wife, but expressing such a desire is just that- a desire to live with someone:

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.

In making the decision, Justice Kiteley noted that she had considered opinions from geriatric experts who had assessed Chuvalo in 2017, including a geriatric psychiatrist and a geriatrician. Both experts noted in separate expert reports that Chuvalo was incapable of instructing lawyers, however, they differed in opinion as to whether he had the capacity to decide whether he wanted to reconcile or divorce.

The psychiatrist assessed Chuvalo a number of times over the course of last year. In his latest expert report he indicated that Chuvalo was no longer able to “appreciate the consequences of his choices in regard to the matrimonial proceedings”, “does not demonstrate a satisfactory ability to appreciate the potential consequences of reconciliation or divorce”, and that “cognitive tasks required for appreciation include realistic appraisal of outcome and justification of choice”. The psychiatrist noted that while Chuvalo had told him, in spring 2017, that he was concerned that his wife’s desire for reconciliation was motivated by financial gain, his cognitive ability had declined since then and he could no longer consider “all the risk evaluation” needed to make a reconciliation decision.

Justice Kiteley noted that the psychiatrist’s evidence, including his “before and after” analysis was helpful and assisted the court in coming to a decision.

She also urged the Chuvalo family to “bury the hatchet” so that they can made the best plans possible in the coming years as Chuvalo “continues to experience inevitable decline”.

Chuvalo is currently under court-ordered protection of the Office of the Public Guardian and Trustee. A case conference is scheduled for early March in order to discuss next steps. At issue in the divorce are the couple’s three properties, as well as significant business and other assets.

We will continue to follow developments in this regard as they unfold. In the meantime, if you have questions about high-net worth divorce, including complex division of assets issues, or you have related estates questions,  contact Financial Litigation. We regularly work with a carefully selected team of financial and other professionals, including forensic accountants and tax specialists, to offer you a comprehensive and personalized service that meets your specific needs. Respond to a legal crisis with Financial Litigation, and let our unique experience guide you through your family law or estates dispute. Schedule your consultation online, or by calling us at 416 769 4107 x1.