Can I Sue Over a Broken Engagement?

Recognition of breach-of-promise-to-marry lawsuits have changed with the times.

Posted Oct 26, 2018

Once upon a time, under breach-of-promise-to-marry theory, a woman had the right to sue her former fiancé for breaking off their engagement. As one commentator has explained:

The law presumed that a man who breached his promise was a scoundrel and the woman was both justifiably outraged and faultless. Often an expression of the jury's moral indignation, damages included those for mental anguish, humiliation, expenses in preparing for marriage, and a woman's subsequent loss of marketability. Breach of promise to marry actions were intended to protect women's social standing because they were often denied a second opportunity for a lucrative marriage and therefore, the only acceptable option for financial stability. Even worse were a woman's options who failed to remain chaste until the wedding, though this may have increased her recovery or given rise to an additional action for seduction. 

Laura Belleau, Farewell to Heart Balm Doctrines and the Tender Years Presumption, Hello to the Genderless Family, 24 J. Am. Acad. Matrim. Law. 365, 375 (2012).

Breach-of-promise-to-marry cases have not been altogether abandoned in modern times, either. Consider one relatively recent case. Wildey v. Springs, 47 F.3d 1475, 1478–80 (7th Cir. 1995). Sharon Wildey, an attorney, and Richard Springs, a cattle rancher, enjoyed a relationship early in 1992. Introduced by a mutual friend, the two began their long-distance relationship over the telephone. After a number of telephone calls, Richard visited Sharon multiple times, and they decided to plan a getaway to Florida. While waiting for a plane in the Orlando airport, Sharon suggested that she and Richard consider marriage. Although Richard agreed to her suggestion, he expressed doubts about the couple's ability to overcome the practical difficulties of a long-distance relationship. The parties eventually decided on a “commuter-type” marriage for a five-year time period, leading to an eventual relocation for both in Florida or the Caribbean. Richard bought an engagement ring and proposed. After a few months, however, Richard began having second thoughts and eventually decided to break the engagement. He composed a letter to Sharon explaining his doubts about the marriage. He also suggested that she keep the engagement ring and some money he had placed in a bank account for payments on the ring. Sharon wrote back, stating that she had become "extremely depressed and anxious" due to Richard's decision. 

Sharon filed suit soon afterward. She alleged that the broken engagement harmed her in several ways, and consequently sought recovery for medical expenses, lost business profits, pain and suffering. The jury returned a $178,000 verdict in her favor. The district judge remitted that amount by $60,000, concluding that the lost business profits were not fairly attributable to the broken engagement. The district judge left the remainder of the $118,000 verdict intact, however.

This case was reversed on appeal to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals due to insufficient notice on Sharon's part, a statutory requirement in Illinois at the time. Almost a decade later, in 2016, the statute itself was wholly repealed by the legislature. 

The story of Sharon and Richard illustrate several points: modern breach-of-promise-to-marry statutes vary across jurisdictions, and they can be very state-specific; modern breach-of-promise-to-marry lawsuits may be looked upon with disfavor or narrowly construed; and modern breach-of-promise-to-marry laws may be in flux or already repealed.

Despite the uncertainty of the last point, the general trend is clear. Breach-of-promise-to-marry lawsuits have been abolished by most jurisdictions in the United States by court decisions or legislation. This decline has been viewed as a result of evolving gender norms and theories of marriage. Women who are abandoned by their fiancés no longer seem injured or helpless enough to receive an award of damages. Other commentators have noted that the decline was accelerated by media popularization of the idea that "all sorts of [ ] nefarious females who used the slipperiness of heart balm laws to con upstanding men out of hundreds of thousands of dollars," and that "female blackmailers were lurking around restaurants, cafes, hotels and other affluent watering holes, where they would pick up wealthy, unsuspecting men, go on a few dates with them (ensuring that they’d be spotted by witnesses or even secretly photographed), and then slap them with a breach-of-promise suit." Tori Telfer, "How the “Heart Balm Racket” Convinced America That Women Were Up to No Good," Smithsonian.com (February 13, 2018).

A few remaining jurisdictions still permit breach-of-promise actions. Other states have determined, alternatively, that while a jilted fiancé may no longer sue for breach of promise, she or he may be able to recover property given in contemplation of a marriage that never happened. There are also cases where the tort causes of action for intentional and negligent misrepresentation, arising from false representations prior to a wedding, can proceed as distinguishable from a pure breach-of-promise-to-marry theory.

In sum, although a pure breach-of-promise-to-marry lawsuit is unlikely to prevail — depending on the jurisdiction — alternative theories may be available to vindicate the underlying unfairness or injustice perpetuated in particularly egregious cases.

References

Laura Belleau, Farewell to Heart Balm Doctrines and the Tender Years Presumption, Hello to the Genderless Family, 24 J. Am. Acad. Matrim. Law. 365, 375–76 (2012)

Wildey v. Springs, 47 F.3d 1475, 1478–80 (7th Cir. 1995)

Kelsey M. May, Bachelors Beware: The Current Validity and Future Feasibility of A Cause of Action for Breach of Promise to Marry, 45 Tulsa L. Rev. 331, 334 (2009)

§ 62:29.Abolition of breach of promise actions, 23 Williston on Contracts § 62:29 (4th ed.)

Tori Telfer, "How the “Heart Balm Racket” Convinced America That Women Were Up to No Good," Smithsonian.com (February 13, 2018), available at https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/how-heart-balm-racket-convinced-america-women-were-no-good-180968144/.

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