Updated November 24, 2020:

A Breach of Promise

A breach of promise to marry may sound like something from a bad fairy tale, but it is an actual breach that can occur should one person back out of a proposed marriage. In many states, the person who breaks a promise to get married could face many legal challenges, particularly paying potentially high sums of money to the person to whom the promise was made. Before entering into a marital contract, be sure you know what you are getting into should you get a case of cold feet.

What is a Breach of Promise to Marry?

A breach of promise to marry happens when one person promises to marry the other but then opts to back out of the agreement. A promise to marry is legally enforceable in half of the states in the country, as long as the agreement meets the requirements of a contract.

Not fulfilling a promise to marry is akin to a breached contract. One party is allowed to hold the other liable for breaking the promise. “Heart Balm Laws” are the laws that govern the promise to marry.

The three basic elements of a contract include:

  • An offer
  • An acceptance
  • Consideration

The mutual promise to get married is consideration. The consideration is an item of value that is exchanged between parties. This can be something physical like money or a mutual promise.

In many states, a contract to marry is not required to be in writing to be enforced. The Statute of Frauds does not apply to a marriage contract. Although one party can win the suit, it does not mean the other party is then forced to go through with the marriage. Instead, the victim will win monetary damages that will replace any out-of-pocket expenses laid out for the wedding.

If there was any especially offensive conduct on the part of the defendant, punitive damages could also apply.

Recovery can also be possible if there is a cause for fraud. The court is not typically happy about hearing cases of promise to marry, as there are many emotions tied to them. They are so personal and bitter in many cases that courts find them difficult to settle.

Additionally, there is an incorrect assumption that some victims will threaten a suit to pressure a person of wealth into a high settlement. For this reason, many statutes will no longer allow suits for breach of promise to marry.

What Damages Can Be Recovered for a Breach of Promise to Marry?

There is no hard-line rule when it comes to the type of damages recovered for a breach of promise to marry. While a promise to marry is a contract, many jurisdictions will allow the awards applicable to tort causes of action.

Some of the damages could include:

  • Financial loss: the plaintiff could recover money for losses such as money from preparing for a wedding, the loss of a home, the loss of any quantifiable advantage that stemmed from the marriage.
  • Compensatory: these damages are those pertaining to the plaintiff’s mental or emotional state or reputation.
  • Punitive: these damages could be awarded if the breach was done with fraud, force, or malicious intent.

Suing for Fraud for Breach of Promise

If you want to get around a heart balm statute, you could try to sue for fraud instead of breach of contract. Fraud has to do with the following:

  • A false statement made by the defendant presented as fact
  • The defendant is aware the statement is false
  • The defendant knows the plaintiff will rely on that statement
  • The statement is relied upon by the plaintiff
  • The plaintiff endures harm because of the reliance on the statement

What Happens When the Plaintiff is Successful in the Breach?

If the plaintiff wins the case, he or she cannot obviously force the defendant into marriage. Also, the plaintiff’s award could be mitigated or reduced if he or she has acted in a way that prevented the recovery of damages.  He or she will still have some liability in the contract.

If you need help with understanding a breach of promise and how it works, you can post your legal need on UpCounsel’s marketplace. UpCounsel accepts only the top 5 percent of lawyers to its site. Lawyers on UpCounsel come from law schools such as Harvard Law and Yale Law, and average 14 years of legal experience, including work with or on behalf of companies like Google, Menlo Ventures, and Airbnb.