Damages for Breach of Promise to Marry

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What is a Breach of Promise to Marry?

A breach of promise to marry, or simply, “breach of promise”, occurs when a person promises to marry another, and then backs out of their agreement.  In about half of all U.S. states, a promise to marry is considered to be legally enforceable, so long as the promise or agreement fulfills all the basic requirements of a valid contract. 

Failure to fulfill a promise to marry is treated like a breach of contract- a party can be held liable for damages caused to the other party if they back out of their promise.     

The laws governing promises to marry are known as “Heart Balm Laws”.  If a state does not enforce a heart balm statute, then no lawsuit may be filed for a breach of promise to marry.  The parties will not be entitled to damages for losses, although recovery may be possible through a contract fraud cause of action. 

What Damages can be Recovered for a Breach of Promise to Marry?

There is no bright-line rule as to the amount or type of damages that can be recovered for breach of promise to marry.  Although a promise to marry is basically a contract, some jurisdictions allow damage awards that are normally only available in a tort cause of action.  Some forms of available damages include:

If the plaintiff prevails, they cannot obtain specific performance as a remedy.  That is, the defendant of course cannot be forced to marry the plaintiff as indicated in the contract.  On the other hand a plaintiff’s damage award may be subject to “mitigation” or reduction if they have acted in someway to contribute to the breach. 

Finally, if the plaintiff has already secured another spouse, it will not in any way affect their ability to recover damages.  The fact that the plaintiff has married does not relieve the defendant of their liability under the contract. 

What factors will a Court consider when calculating Damages?

As a general rule, any claim of damages for breach of promise will be highly scrutinized by a court.  This is due to the possibility of a lawsuit being brought simply for the purpose of forcing a wealthy person into a generous settlement offer. 

The amount of damages awarded in a breach of promise to marry is subject to the court’s own discretion.  A court will consider all of the various circumstances surrounding the party’s relationship, such as:

As in any breach of contract claim, a court will consider all forms of evidence in order to determine the intentions of the parties.  These may include oral and written statements, as well as the conduct of the parties.

Are there any Defenses to a Breach of Promise to Marry?

Most of the defenses in a breach of promise claim have to do with the party’s capacity to enter into a valid contract.  Some commonly raised defenses to breach of promise are:

It is not a valid defense if the plaintiff was engaged to another person at the time of the promise.  Also, a defense cannot be based simply on unappealing traits of the plaintiff. 

Do I Need a Lawyer for a Breach of Promise to Marry?

Not all states allow a lawsuit to be brought for a breach of promise to marry.  You may wish to consult with a family law attorney if you are involved in a dispute over a promise to marry.  Your attorney can determine whether your state has a heart balm statute, and whether you might be entitled to recover for losses sustained from the breach.

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Last Modified: 03-10-2011 11:45 AM PST

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