Breaching A Promise to Marry: Still Grounds for a Lawsuit?!?

Every so often another lawsuit happens that reminds me that the ‘heartbalm’ lawsuits still exist, in some form. The ‘alientation of affection’ lawsuit is a wonderful example of that, particularly as it surfaces quite often in places such as North Carolina, but there are others. In my opinion, one of the most fascinating in recent memory was essentially a ‘breach of promise to marry’ lawsuit.

Breach of promise to marry actions were premised on the concept that a marriage proposal, if accepted, was a legally-cognizable contract. Given the historical importance that marriage had to women both socially as well as economically, these lawsuits reflected the very real damage to a woman’s reputation if the marriage offer was rescinded or the engagement broken off. A woman thus jilted would often have been seen as ‘damaged goods’ by other men, and her future marriage prospects therefore diminished. The heyday of these suits was the 19th century, and these suits provided a fascinating study in contrasts: Victorians espoused highly-sentimentalized and romantic notions of love, and there was a very real tension between these idealized conceptions of romance and the idea that one could ascribe economic damages to a breach of promise to marry, and hence basically ‘commodify’ love. These lawsuits were both common as well as scandalous (and for a marvelous satire on this institution, I recommend you read Charles Dicken’s novel “The Pickwick Papers”), and the titillating details that came out in these trials were gossip fodder for the 19th century version of supermarket tabloids. One interesting legal twist is that historically the common law (until the late 19th century) precluded the parties in a lawsuit from testifying, based on the premise that they were interested parties and hence their testimony was likely to be self-serving. In breach of promise to marry suits, however, this caused the absurd situation that the two people who were central to the relationship (e.g., the jilted bride-to-be and her ex-betrothed) were precisely the two people from whom the court never heard. Love letters were read outloud in court, and witnesses testified to stolen kisses, passionate glances, strolls arem-in-arm and whatever other details about the relationship they had gleaned, but the ex-lovers themselves could only sit and listen.

So, why is this anything more than just an archaic fragment of our legal past?

Well, some of you may remember that in 2008 the case of RoseMary Shell was in the news. Shell sued her ex-financé for breaking off their engagement, and was awarded $150,000 in damages by a jury in Georgia. Shell had resigned from a well-paying job in Florida to be with her then-beau, Wayne Gibbs. Shell claimed that she had suffered very real financial losses as a result, as she was unable to secure an equally-well-paying job in Georgia, besides the emotional distress she susffered (Gibbs had, charmingly enough, broken off the engagement by leaving her a note in the bathroom). Gibbs, for his part, testified that he had paid off $30,000 of her debts, only to discover that she had even more debt than she had disclosed. Did the jury award her damages based on emotional distress, or her loss of earning power? It’s not clear, but the latter certainly provided a more tangible yardstick for the jurors to use, and perhaps that’s what swayed them. It leaves open the question of whether Shell would have sued had Gibbs broken off the engagement more sensitively, and whether the facts of this case are such that this case’s outcome was highly unusual. The historic premise underlying these lawsuits was, after all, that a woman’s economic and social status was harmed by the breach. While the social aspect may no longer ring true, there may have been just enough of an economic loss in this case to make it fit the 19th century paradigm– if Shell did in fact give up her career to be with her ex-fianceé, then it could be said there were quantifiable damages. Of course, a jury might also have felt that her emotional distress counted for something as well.

Was this a good decision? Personally, I feel a ‘no fault’ regime makes the most sense. The term “breach of promise” suggests this was a contractual agreement– but do people still think of engagements (despite the nomenclature) as some sort of binding agreement? Does it make conceptual sense to move towards a no-fault divorce regime but treat engagements differently? Do decisions such as this, coupled with at-fault divorce, lead indirectly but inexorably to the growing prevalence of ‘divorce by murder’ cases? How does one quantify emotional distress anyway, and is that an appropriate concept to be applying in deeply-personal relationships? However one looks at it, it is another example of the tension between “family” and “law”.

Incidentally, referring to the outcome of her lawsuit, Shell said at the time, “This has been the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do and I think justice has been served,” Shell said.

For some video footage of the story, please see:



Breaching A Promise to Marry: Still Grounds for a Lawsuit?!? — 25 Comments

  1. Would never have thought it, Ian– I didn’t know about the heartbalm actions, and certainly was surprised that some of them are still alive and well today–I look forward to learning more in future posts! How often will you be adding new blog entries? Best, Jacques S.

  2. Unbelieveable to me that this would still be a potential form of legal action, grounded as it is in a time when the social and economic position of women were very different. A really interesting post and I learned quite a bit– looking forward to reading more about the ‘majesty and mystery’ of the law!

  3. Hi there, i just wanted to drop you a line to say that i thoroughly enjoyed this particular post of yours, I have subscribed to your RSS feeds and have skimmed a few of your posts before but this one really stood out for me. I know that I am just a stranger to you but I figured you might appreciate the appreciation 🙂 – Take care – and keep blogging.

  4. Marriage is not overrated. It can be stressful at times, but it is always worth it. The bond between humans and God is unbreakable! Make your vows at a temple and live happily ever after!

  5. I was just served papers 2 weeks ago and I, myself, am being sued for breach of promise to the tune of 150k. my ex-fiance waited until the last hour of the last day of exactly one year to file the suit (which I am finding out that because he did that, it’s too late for me to counter sue since the statute of limitations is now officially up). I am finding nothing on the internet about what a woman does when the ‘man’ sues her. Any positive outcome stories out there when the gender roles are reversed? I am in NC as well, and having trouble even finding an atty that will represent such a case. No atty. wants to bother with me. Any advice out there? I need all I can get since I do stand a chance to lose if I can’t even find an attorney to represent me.

    • Hi– thanks for your post, and I am sorry to hear about what has happened to you. Please note that I am not providing, nor can I provide, legal advice to you on this issue nor should this be interpreted as such, especially as I have no information on the particulars of your case.. I can, however, make a few general comments. You mention that your ex-finance waited until the last minute before the statute of limitations tolled in order to file suit. While I cannot speak of NC law specifically, generally the plaintiff has 90 days to serve notice, and one has a set amount of time (usually 20 days) to respond to a complaint after you have been offically served. A counterclaim can be made as part of your response to the suit. Again, while I cannot offer you legal advice, you would generally want to respond so as to avoid defaulting–not responding is seen as not contesting the plaintiff’s claims and could preclude you from raising defenses later and could result in a ‘default judgment’ being entered against you. You can always have an attorney petition the court and hopefully obtain permission to amend your response or counterclaim later, if necessary.
      I am not sure there has been a collection of the outcomes of NC cases of this type (if there is, I haven’t found it), but I can tell you that at least in theory that gender is irrelevant– either a male or female can sue. The suit has a lot to do with a potential jury’s response to the evidence presented to them related to the plaintiff’s economic harm, emotional distress, and the like. A ‘breach’ seen as particularly insensitive, cruel or resulting in tangible economic harm (e.g., if the other party had given up a job based on promises made, etc) can result in significant jury awards. Of course, this does not mean it would happen in your case. I also cannot recommend an attorney in NC, especially as I do not know what area of NC you are in, but you may want to keep looking for a firm that does a lot of breach of contract work– it is unlikely you will find a firm that has any experience in breach of promise to marry suits, but breach of contract is analogous. You may want to contact a firm such as Harris Winfield. I hope you find this useful. Feel free to drop me a line and let me know how it goes.

      • thanks so much for your advice. After 2 weeks of searching and constant denials, I finally found a lawyer that works with personal injury.. Funny, he said he was going to have a good time with this one. He knows the “ins & outs” of frivolous suits and said this was one if he ever saw. I have renewed hope. Thanks again for all your info. Will try to keep posted of the results so everyone will know.

        • also, the counter suit is not able to happen, just as I had said. All I can hope for it the case to be dismissed or deemed filed with intent to harass (which it was) and he will have to pay all court costs. No hope on getting my legal fees back I’ve been forced to pay out so far. 1200.00 & counting.

        • hi coldfeet– glad to hear you found a lawyer to represent you, and hopefully everything will work out well. Sounds like a thoroughly unpleasant experience but I am sure that having an attorney will give you peace of mind and a better outcome. I wish you all the best. Do drop a line and let me know how it is resolved. cheers, Ian

        • Hi my name is Teresa i was reading your comment hope things went well . I have this problem my friend was in prison and for 4 yrs i took care of him sending him money making he was comfortable why he was their.We made all kind s of plans for marriage and now that he’s out he don’t want to get married all the time and effort i put into this man has gone down the drain’ Those for years of my life was at a stand still. Someone please tell me if i have a case to sue him to get my money back and compensation for this broken heart. I too live in N.C.

          • hi Teresa– thanks for your post; I am sorry to hear about your experience. I cannot offer you legal advice on this issue, but would suggest you contact an attorney in N.C. that has experience with such matters to see what your options might be. Good luck!

        • Hi, was reading what you are going through, I’m 70 yrs old and moved from Fla to be married to here in NC, was promised marriage I have the ring my children here him tell all about our marriage he aught a home here now after 4 months he keeps changes his words and refuges marriage so I’m here in NC on Live on social security no money tomorrow back to Fla. or rent a place here! He is not a man of his word, can you give me the name of your lawyer you found would be so helpful. Donna

          • hi Donna– thanks for your post. As you can see from the blog, I was not detailing my own personal experiences so don’t have any firsthand knowledge of lawyers in NC that handle these kinds of cases. You might contact the state or local bar association to see if they can provide you with any information, and of course there is always the yellow pages in addition to web searches. Best of luck, Ian

        • I know you are going through so much, was reading your blog and you did find a lawyer could you please pass his name on to me, if possible I’m new in NC thank you so much if you can help me Donna

        • Hi, thank you for posting. Assuming you were asking one of our fellow posters about her case, I don’t know– but hopefully we will get a follow-up post!

  6. Thank you for the auspicious writeup. It was an amusing and informative account. I look forward to more added legal topics from you!

  7. Hi,

    I was wondering can you sue for breach of contract if the man was married but separated. Gave me a huge rock W a baby. Now he has moved out and to another state. I gave up my business .. No taxes filled because it was a new business. My only income is what he allows me to have .. I feel so many things for starters betrayed

  8. Pingback: S03E01 | Horrible Histories Reviews

  9. Pingback: Lawyer Raises Prospect of ‘Trial by Combat’ in Lawsuit | Ian C. Pilarczyk

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