Suits for Breach of Promise to Marry

Terms:

Donor:
One who gives a gift or creates a trust.

Donee:
The recipient of a gift.

About one-half of American states today permit a suit for breach of promise to marry.  Historically, most plaintiffs in breach-of-promise suits have been women.  However, virtually all states that allow such actions at all, allow suits to be brought by either the man or the woman.  Usually, the damages allowed are for reimbursement of the expenditures made in reliance upon the upcoming wedding.

Example: Paulette sues for breach of promise to marry.  David moves to dismiss on the ground that the action is contrary to public policy.  The court held that Paulette could recover in a quasi-contract, quasi-tort action for foreseeable special and general damages.  So, she was able to recover for mental anguish, loss to reputation and injury to health.  Conversely, damages for loss of expected financial and social position was not allowed.  See, e.g., Standard v. Bolin, 565 P.2d 94 (Wash. 1977).

In Tennessee, courts want to see a written contract.  Specifically,

In all actions for damages for the breach of promise or contract of marriage which may hereafter be tried in the courts of this state, unless there is written evidence of such contract, signed by the party against whom the action is brought, the alleged contract must be proved by at least two (2) disinterested witnesses before any recovery may be allowed.

See, Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-3-401 (2005).

On the other hand, states that prohibit these types of actions clearly state so in their statutes:  For example:

State

Statute

Language

California

Cal. Civ. Code § 43.4 (2005)

A fraudulent promise to marry or to cohabit after marriage does not give rise to a cause of action for damages.

Connecticut

Conn. Gen. Stat. § 52-572b (2004)

No action may be brought upon any cause arising from . . . breach of a promise to marry.

Florida

Fla. Stat. § 771.01 (2005)

The rights of action heretofore existing to recover sums of money as damage . . . breach of contract to marry are hereby abolished.

New Jersey

N.J. Stat. § 2A:23-1 (2005)

The rights of action formerly existing to recover sums of money as damage for . . . breach of contract to marry are abolished from and after June 27, 1935.

New York

NY CLS Civ. R. § 80-a (2005)

The rights of action to recover sums of money as damages for . . . breach of contract to marry are abolished.  No act done within this state shall operate to give rise, either within or without this state, to any such right of action. No contract to marry made or entered into in this state shall operate to give rise, either within or without this state, to any cause or right of action for its breach.

Pennsylvania

23 Pa.C.S. § 1902 (2005)

All causes of action for breach of contract to marry are abolished.

Despite the restriction on suits for a breach of a promise to marry, injured parties can still recover property transferred in contemplation of marriage.  For instance, in New York, the law states:

Nothing in this article contained shall be construed to bar a right of action for the recovery of a chattel, the return of money or securities, or the value thereof at the time of such transfer, or the rescission of a deed to real property when the sole consideration for the transfer of the chattel, money or securities or real property was a contemplated marriage which has not occurred, and the court may, if in its discretion justice so requires, (1) award the defendant a lien upon the chattel, securities or real property for monies expended in connection therewith or improvements made thereto, (2) deny judgment for the recovery of the chattel or securities or for rescission of the deed and award money damages in lieu thereof.

See NY CLS Civ. R. § 81 (2005).

The most common dispute following a cancelled wedding is what to do with the engagement ring.  Courts generally treat the engagement ring as a gift, from the donor (the person who gave the ring) to the donee (the person who received it).  To find a legal gift, a court looks for three things:

  1. the donor's intent to give the ring as a gift,

  2. the donor's delivery of it to the donee, and

  3. the donee's acceptance of the item.

If the person to whom the ring was given can show all three elements, the ring is considered a gift to him or her.

Yet, the majority of courts also consider such a gift to be a conditional one.  That means that until some future event occurs, the gift is not final; if that event does not occur, then the donor has the right to get the gift back.  See, e.g., Heiman v. Parrish, 942 P.2d 631, 633 (Kan. 1997).  It does not matter who decided to call off the wedding.

The Supreme Court of Montana has recently come down on the opposite side of this issue, rejecting the conditional gift theory and declaring that an engagement ring is an unconditional, completed gift and that's that.  See, e.g., Albinger v. Harris, 2002 WL 1226858 (Mont. June 6, 2002).

In comparison, just a few years ago the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania stuck steadfastly to the no-fault reasoning and decreed that the donor should always get the ring back if the engagement is broken off, regardless of who broke it off or why. Lindh v. Surman, 742 A.2d 643 (Pa. 1999).  Iowa, Kansas, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York and Wisconsin have the same rule.  Heiman v. Parrish, 942 P.2d 631, 636 (Kan. 1997). 

Example: When Ben and Jennifer got engaged 18 months ago, Ben bought her a 1.5 carat pink diamond engagement ring.  Recently, after a tumultuous relationship and one postponed wedding, they call off their engagement.  Reportedly, Jennifer is the one who initiated the breakup.  As with many questions in the family law area, for a definitive answer as to who gets the ring, the state of residence will govern the decision.

With the erosion of the institution of marriage, more people live together—sometimes as a precursor to marriage.  Like couples contemplating marriage, individuals who decide to cohabitate also have a need to protect their property interests. 

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