Breach of Marriage Promise
BREACH OF MARRIAGE PROMISE
A common-law right of action for breaking a commitment to enter into matrimony.
The right of action for breach of a marriage promise has been abolished in a majority of states.
Agreement to Marry
An agreement to marry is different from all other contractual relations. The reason for this is that both its object and the relationship created between the parties are completely different from those of any other contract. In order to recover for breach of promise, the plaintiff must establish that the two parties had a valid existing contract to marry. This can be accomplished by a showing that both parties had a clear intent for the agreement to be binding.
If the parties to a contract to marry are incapable of creating a valid agreement due to a legal disability, a lawsuit for breach of marriage promise cannot be sustained. Generally, a valid defense to such an action is the infancy of the promisor at the time of the agreement. The infancy of the promisee, however, is not a valid defense. Statutes provide the ages of infancy.
An individual who is incapable of making a contract due to incompetence will not be held liable for breach of promise. Similarly, a promise to marry someone who is already married is invalid, provided the promisee knew this fact. When the plaintiff was unaware that the promisor was already married, however, he or she may recover. Upon the legal termination of the marriage by divorce, annulment, or death of the former spouse, a defendant who breaches a promise to marry the plaintiff may be held liable.
A breach of contract action cannot be maintained when a marriage would be unlawful due to incest.
Offer and Acceptance
Fundamental elements to the creation of a marriage contract are an offer and acceptance. It is not necessary that the offer be in formal language. The key requirement is that both parties comprehend that there was a clearly intended offer of marriage. A statement of the intention to marry to a third person, absent any other indicated intent, is not enough.
An acceptance of an offer to marry must be given within a reasonable period of time. Such acceptance need not be formal but may be implied from the promisee's behavior. For a marriage contract to be enforceable, there must be a showing that there has been a meeting of the minds of the individuals to the agreement. A promise to marry induced by duress is invalid. Similarly, a promise to marry made by fraudulent inducement—or fraudulent concealment of facts that would prevent the making of the agreement if revealed or disclosed—will render the promise invalid and relieve the innocent party from all liability.
A promise to marry must be based upon legal consideration. Generally, one individual's promise is adequate consideration for the promise of the other party. A promise to marry must not be based solely upon illegal or immoral consideration, such as sexual relations between the parties. A promise based upon legal consideration will not, however, be vitiated merely because unlawful sexual intercourse took place between the parties either prior to or following the promise.
If a promise to marry is conditional, liability for its breach will arise only following the performance or occurrence of the agreed condition.
A contract to marry may be manifested by many promises made at different times; however, there is only a single contract, and only a single breach can take place.
A contract to marry can be rescinded either by mutual consent of the parties or in instances of fraud or duress. The consent to postpone a marriage alone does not constitute a release of the obligation to perform it.
Unless there is a legally justifiable reason, an unwillingness to perform one's promise to marry creates a breach of promise to marry. Mere postponement of the wedding does not constitute a breach unless it is done arbitrarily and for no good reason. In such case, the postponement can be regarded as equivalent to a refusal to comply with the marital promise.
Defenses exist other than the invalidity or termination of the marriage contract and lack of capacity.
The invalidity of the plaintiff's divorce from a former spouse may be used as a defense only if the issue of the divorce is raised on the ground that there was a lack of jurisdiction on the part of the court to permit the divorce. If the plaintiff had an invalid divorce, the defendant cannot be held liable for breach of the marriage promise because the plaintiff was still lawfully married to his or her former mate and, therefore, could not validly contract a marriage with the defendant.
A valid defense to a breach of marriage promise is the plaintiff's refusal to marry the defendant. The defendant cannot later defend himself or herself on the basis of the fact that he or she subsequently offered to marry the plaintiff. The engagement of the plaintiff to another individual at the time of entering into a contract with the defendant is not a defense. Similarly, the marriage of the plaintiff to another party subsequent to the defendant's breach does not excuse the defendant of liability for a breach. Unattractive personality traits, or offensive conduct, such as drunkenness, cannot be used as a defense. When the objectionable behavior amounts to a felony, however, it can be used as a defense against the plaintiff in a breach of marriage promise action.
Generally, a defendant will successfully defeat an action by alleging physical incapacity or disease that makes it either unsafe or improper to enter into marriage. If a defendant has knowledge of the disability when he or she promises to marry the plaintiff there is no defense. A disability on the part of the defendant that would not interfere with the marital relationship is insufficient to relieve a defendant of his promise.
The nature and form of an action for breach of marriage promise is contractual. Recoverable damages include compensatory damages for injury to the feelings and health of the plaintiff as well as to his or her reputation. A plaintiff may also recover damages for any financial loss resulting from the breach, comparable to the recovery in a breach of any other contract action, in addition to compensation for loss of advantages that would have stemmed from a marital relationship with the defendant.
Hirshman, Linda, and Jane Larson. 1998. Hard Bargains: The Politics of Sex. Don Mills, Ont.: Oxford Univ. Press.
Tushnet, Rebecca. 1998. "Rules of Engagement: Laws Regarding Broken Marital Engagements." Yale Law Journal 107 (June): 2583–618.
Wallman, Lester, and Sharon McDonnell. 1994. Cupid, Couples, and Contracts: A Guide to Living Together, Prenuptial Agreements, and Divorce. Sandy, Ore.: MasterMedia.