Many years ago, a promise to marry an individual was just like any other type of binding contract. That meant that if one individual did not follow through with their promise to marry the other, they could be sued because of the breach.
Lawsuits that arise from a broken promise to marry usually involve three main issues, including:
- The benefits to be had from the marriage;
- Any losses incurred from the broken promise to marry; and
- Injuries that were suffered resulting from the broken promise;
- Injuries such as humiliation, anxiety, and depression were commonly compensated.
In certain states, laws governing promise to marry contracts focus on criminal conversion or alienation of affection. Many courts, however, have begun to disfavor awarding another individual for a broken promise to marry them.
As a result, many states have passed Heart Balm statutes that abolished the ability to sue for a breach of a promise to marry.
What Is a Breach of Promise to Marry?
A breach of a promise to marry, also referred to as a breach of promise, occurs when an individual makes a promise to marry another individual and then backs out of the agreement. In approximately 50% of the states in the U.S., a promise to marry is considered legally enforceable so long as that promise meets all of the basic requirements of a valid contract.
If an individual fails to fulfill their promise to marry, it may be treated similar to a breach of contract. This means that one individual may be able to hold the other individual liable for breaking their promise to marry.
As noted above, the breach of promise laws that govern these types of promises are called Heart Balm laws. If an individual resides in a state that does not enforce heart balm statutes, they would not be able to file a lawsuit for a breach of a promise to marry.
If a state does not have this type of law, an individual will not be entitled to recover damages for losses. An individual may, however, still be able to recover on the basis of fraud.
What States Have Heart Balm Laws?
As of 2016, 8 states in the United States allow Heart Balm actions, including:
- New Mexico;
- North Carolina;
- South Dakota; and
In contrast, the states that abolished the ability to sue for a breach of a promise to marry include:
- New Jersey;
- New York;
- New Hampshire;
- Pennsylvania; and
- West Virginia.
Can a Promise Be Enforceable?
There are certain situations in which a statement or a promise becomes a contract. This includes situations where a party makes a statement or a promise that causes another individual to rely on that statement in a way that they are financially injured by that reliance, a court may enforce that statement or promise as if it was a contract.
As discussed above, what promises may be enforceable will depend on the state in which the issue arises.
Can You Sue for Breach of Promise to Marry?
In certain states, it may be possible for an individual to sue for a breach of a promise to marry. Even if a plaintiff prevails in a lawsuit, they obviously cannot force the other party to marry them if they do not wish to do so.
In other words, if a plaintiff in a breach of promise to marry lawsuit prevails, they cannot be awarded specific performance as a remedy. In addition, a plaintiff’s damages award may be mitigated, or reduced, if they contributed to the breach in some way.
If a plaintiff has already remarried, it would not affect their ability to recover damages. A remarriage would not relieve a defendant of their liability under a promise to marry contract.
What Damages Can Be Recovered for a Breach of Promise to Marry?
In a breach of promise to marry case, there is not a standard rule regarding the amount of types of damages that may be recovered for a breach. Some types of damages that may be available in a breach of promise to marry case include:
A plaintiff may be able to recover damages to compensate them for financial losses that were caused by the breach of the promise to marry, which may include both future and past losses, for example:
- Losses that resulted from preparing for the wedding;
- The loss of a property or home; and
- The loss of a quantifiable advantage that would have resulted from the marital relationship.
Compensatory damages are damages that are awarded to compensate a non-breaching party for losses they incurred. In a breach of promise to marry case, the types of injuries may include injuries to the plaintiff’s:
- Emotional state; or
Punitive damages, also called exemplary damages, are damages that can be awarded when a breach was committed with:
Punitive damages are used to punish reckless, dangerous, or offensive conduct. They are also awarded as a deterrent for other individuals so they do not engage in the same type of conduct.
What Factors Will a Court Consider When Calculating Damages?
Generally, a claim for damages in a breach of promise to marry lawsuit will be carefully examined by a court. This is because a lawsuit may be filed for the purpose of forcing a wealthy individual into a generous settlement offer.
Because of this, the amount of damages that are awarded in these types of cases are often subject to the discretion of the individual court. A court will consider all of the circumstances surrounding 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 affected each of the parties financially;
- The financial and social standing of the defendant, which would provide an estimate of the lifestyle which the plaintiff would have enjoyed; and
- Other issues between the parties, such as:
- physical intimacy;
- pregnancies; and
In a similar manner as with other breach of contract claims, courts will consider many different types of evidence to determine the intentions of the parties, which may include oral and written statements in addition to the conduct of the parties.
Are There Any Defenses to a Breach of Promise to Marry?
Yes, there may be defenses available in breach of promise to marry claims. The majority of these involve the capacity of the parties to enter into a valid contract.
Examples of defenses to a breach of promise that 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; and
- 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 party at the time of their promise to marry, this would not be a valid defense. In addition, a defense cannot be based solely upon an unappealing trait of the plaintiff.
Do I Need an Attorney?
If you believe you may be entitled to compensation due to a broken promise to marry or if you are being sued because of a broken promise to marry, it may be helpful to consult with a family attorney.
Your attorney can explain the laws in your state and assist you with presenting any defenses that may be available to you.