A breach of promise to marry, also called a breach of promise, occurs when an individual makes a promise to marry another individual and then backs out of that agreement. In about half of the states in the United States, a promise to marry is considered to be legally enforceable as long as that promise of agreement meets all of the basic requirements of a valid contract.

If an individual fails to fulfill a promise to marry, it is treated similar to a breach of contract. This means that one party may be able to hold the other party liable for breaking their promise.

The breach of promise laws which govern promises to marry are called Heart Balm laws. If the individual is in a state that does not enforce heart balm statutes, then they will not be able to file a lawsuit for a breach of promise to marry.

Years ago, a promise to marry an individual was treated just like any other binding contract. This meant that if the individual did not follow through with their promise, they were in breach of that contract. A lawsuit based on a broken promise to marry typically focused on three issues, including:

  • The benefits that were to be had from the marriage;
  • Losses which were incurred from the broken promise to marry; and
  • Injuries the plaintiff suffered as a result of the broken promise. Injuries which were commonly compensated included:
    • humiliation;
    • anxiety; and
    • depression.

If the state does not have such laws, the individual will not be entitled to damages for losses. They may, however, still be able to recover based on a cause of action for fraud.

As of 2016, there were 8 states in the United States which allow Heart Balm actions. These include:

  • Hawaii;
  • Mississippi;
  • Missouri;
  • New Mexico;
  • North Carolina;
  • South Dakota; and
  • Utah.

In contrast, the states which have laws that abolish the ability to sue for a breach of a promise to marry include:

  • Alabama;
  • California;
  • Colorado;
  • Florida;
  • Indiana;
  • Massachusetts;
  • Michigan;
  • New Jersey;
  • New York;
  • New Hampshire;
  • Ohio;
  • Pennsylvania; and
  • West Virginia.

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

In breach of promise to marry cases, there is no standard rule as to the amount of types of damages which may be recovered for the breach. Although a promise to marry is essentially a contract, certain jurisdictions permit damage awards which are only typically available in a tort cause of action.

In general, some forms of damages which may be available include:

A plaintiff may be able to recover damages to compensate them for any financial losses which were caused by the breach of promise to marry. This may include both future and past losses, such as:

  • Losses which resulted from the preparation for a wedding;
  • The loss of a property or home
  • The loss of a quantifiable prospective advantage which would have resulted from the marital relationship.

Compensatory damages are damages which are awarded to compensate the non-breaching party for losses they suffered. In a breach of promise to marry case, this may include injury to the plaintiff’s:

  • Health;
  • Emotional state; or
  • Reputation.

Punitive damages, which are also known as exemplary damages are damages which may be awarded when a breach was committing with:

Punitive damages are mainly intended to punish behavior which is particularly reckless, dangerous, or offensive. They are also awarded as a deterrent for other individuals not to engage in the same type of conduct.

Punitive damages are not necessarily intended to compensate the plaintiff for their losses because that is the intent of compensatory damages.

What Happens When the Plaintiff is Successful in the Breach?

Even if a plaintiff prevails in their lawsuit, obviously they cannot force a defendant to marry them if the defendant does not wish to do so. In other words, if the plaintiff prevails, they cannot be awarded specific performance as a remedy.

A defendant cannot be forced to marry a plaintiff and was indicated in their contract. In addition, a plaintiff’s award of damages may be subject to mitigation, or a reduction, if they acted in some way to contribute to the breach.

If the plaintiff has already married another individual, it will not affect their ability to recover damages in any way. The fact that the plaintiff married another individual does not relieve a defendant of their liability under the promise to marry contract.

What Factors Will a Court Consider When Calculating Damages?

In general, any claim for damages in a breach of promise to marry lawsuit will be carefully scrutinized by the court. This is due to the fact that a lawsuit may be filed simply for the purpose of forcing a wealthy individual into a generous settlement offer.

Therefore, the amount of damages awarded in cases of a breach of promise to marry are generally subject to the individual court’s discretion. The court will take into account all of the various circumstances which surround the parties’ relationship, including:

  • The financial position of each individual prior to the promise to marry;
  • An estimated projection of how the marriage would have financially affected each party;
  • The financial and social standing of the defendant, which would provide an estimate of the lifestyle which the plaintiff would have enjoyed;
  • Other issues between the parties, such as:
    • physical intimacy;
    • pregnancies; and
    • children.

Similar to other breach of contract claims, the court will consider all forms of evidence in order to determine the intentions of each party. This 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?

Yes, there may be some available defenses to a breach of promise claim. Most of these have to do with the parties’ capacity to enter into a valid contract.

Some defenses to a breach of promise which are commonly raised include:

  • One or both parties lacked the capacity to enter into a valid contract;
  • The promise to marry was invalid or did not fulfill all of the contract requirements;
  • After making the promise, the defendant became aware of the plaintiff’s conditions, which may include incapacity or disease, which would make it improper or unsafe to enter into the marriage.

If the plaintiff was engaged to another individual at the time of the promise to marry, this is not a valid defense. In addition, a defense cannot be based only upon an unappealing trait of the plaintiff.

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

Yes, it is important to have the assistance of a family lawyer with any breach of promise to marry issues you may be facing. Not every state permits a lawsuit to be brought based on a breach of promise to marry.

If you have recently broken off an engagement, you should contact a local family attorney. Your attorney can advise you regarding whether or not your state has a heart balm statute, whether it applies to your situation, and whether you may be entitled to recover for losses which you sustained from a breach of a promise to marry.