A breach of promise to marry, or simply, “breach of a 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.
The failure to fulfill a promise to marry is treated like a breach of contract. Meaning, quite simply, a party can hold the other party liable for breaking 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. However, recovery may still be possible through a cause of action for fraud.
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.
Generally, some forms of available damages include:
- Damages for Financial Loss: The plaintiff may be able to recover for any financial losses caused by the breach of promise to marry. These may include both past and future losses, such as:
- Losses resulting from preparation for a wedding
- Loss of a home or property
- Loss of a quantifiable prospective advantage that would have resulted from the marital relationship
- Compensatory damages: These are damages for related losses such as injury to the plaintiff’s health, emotional state, or reputation
- Punitive damages: “Exemplary” damages may be awarded where the breach was committed with malicious intent, fraud, violence or force, or where the defendant was grossly negligent in their acts.
Obviously a plaintiff who wins the lawsuit cannot force the defendant to marry them if they do not want to. If the plaintiff prevails, they cannot obtain specific performance as a remedy. The defendant 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.
If the plaintiff has already married someone else, 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.
As a general rule, any claim of damages for breach of a promise to marry 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.
Thus, the amount of damages awarded in a breach of promise to marry is generally subject to the court’s own discretion. A court will consider all of the various circumstances surrounding the party’s relationship, such as:
- The financial position of each person prior to the promise
- A projection of how a marriage would financially effect each party
- The social and financial standing of the defendant as an estimate of the lifestyle that the plaintiff would have received
- Physical intimacy, pregnancies, or children between the parties
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.
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:
- Either party lacked the capacity to enter into a valid contract
- The promise was invalid or did not fulfill contract requirements
- After making the promise, the defendant became aware of the plaintiff’s conditions such as incapacity or disease that would make it improper or unsafe to enter into marriage
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 any unappealing traits of the plaintiff.
Not all states allow a lawsuit to be brought for a breach of promise to marry. If you have recently broken off a marriage, you may wish to consult with a family law attorney. 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.