From the medieval times through the early 1900s, a man’s promise to marry a woman was widely considered to be legally binding. If a man broke his promise to marry, the woman could sue him under the "breach of promise" legal theory—also known as
"breach of promise to marry," "breach of contract to marry," or the "heart balm" theory.
As family law professor Margaret Brinig explains, the reasoning was twofold: First, back then, a woman’s financial condition was completely dependent on marriage so that the breach of promise would be not only an emotional blow, but also have a lasting socioeconomic impact. Second, during that time period, women were expected to be chaste until marriage. But once a man promised to marry a woman, the woman was much more likely to give her virginity to him. Thus, the law wanted to prevent men from seducing women with promises of marriage and then leaving them.
Current Trends in "Breach of Promise to Marry" Lawsuits
Changing social values have led to a decline in this type of lawsuit. Many states have abolished them completely through modern statutes. However, a good number of states still allow for such suits, including North Carolina, South Carolina, Illinois, Hawaii, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New Mexico, South Dakota, Georgia, and Utah. (On a somewhat related note, in a couple of these states, you are also allowed to sue an ex-fiancé’s mistress for millions of dollars—read more about it here.)
Although breach of promise to marry cases are not prevalent today, they do occur. In 2013, a Georgia jury awarded a jilted bride $50,000 from her ex-fiancé after he broke off their engagement. The ex-fiancé appealed the case to the Court of Appeals of Georgia, which—unfortunately for him—upheld the lower court decision and the award. Specifically, the Court of Appeals held that the ex-fiancé led the woman on with no intention of actually marrying her. Rather, he was actually having an affair at the time he proposed to her. The Court noted that Georgia's breach of promise to marry cause of action had not been abolished and that the state legislature had specifically stated that "[m]arriage is encouraged by the law."
Similarly, in 2012, the South Carolina Court of Appeals upheld a breach of promise to marry claim in which a woman argued that she was entitled to monetary compensation for her prenuptial expenditures, mental anguish, and injury to health due to the breakup. Although the woman’s ex-fiancé attempted to argue that breach of promise to marry claims were antiquated and prohibited, the Court disagreed, ruling that "promise to marry actions have not been expressly abolished."
These very recent cases demonstrate that while breach of promise to marry claims are not as widespread as they were in the 1800s, they still exist as a surprisingly feasible, if anachronistic, option in some states.
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