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well as economically, these lawsuits reflected the very real damage to a woman’s reputation if the marriage offer was rescinded or the engagement broken off.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?!? — 28 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

  10. Hi Ian,

    I am a 56 year old woman from South Africa. I met someone from the UK on a dating site in 2006. We carried on to be friends and became best friends and soulmates. We never had a physical relationship and there was no intent of that ever.

    I visited him in 2007, 2010, 2012 and he visited me end of 2011/beginning 2012. Then came 2014 and we started talking about getting married, selling his house, buy a cheaper house near the coast (Lincolnshire areas) and start two businesses to allow us the £18 600 p.a. to comply with my Visa requirements and allow me to stay in the country whilst going through the further steps to later on remain and get citizenship in the UK. I was not allowed to work there but if it was in our own business it would have been accepted.

    We talked about and e-mailed each other regarding our plans on a regular basis and I signed up to various property agents as well to receive e-mails from them regarding houses we may be interested in. I have all of our e-mails on record and probably some Facebook messages as well.

    In August of 2014 we came to a final conclusion about when to get married and it was agreed that I resign my job, book my air ticket, apply and pay for my Visa and make arrangements for my travel from South Africa to the UK including personal preparations to take care of my house and animals here for the time I will be away, what to pack and take with me and what to pack and have sent to me over and above what I took with me on my flight over.

    My now ex-fiancé has a condition referred to as COPD which includes Emphyzema. He had known that he had it for years and he was using different inhalers as well as had to test his lung capacity every now and then when he felt short of breath. All of his treatment was/is taken care of by the UK’s NHS system.

    We planned to buy a narrow boat which he was going to steer and he was also going to be in charge of opening and closing the locks on the canals. The boat would have been converted into a restaurant type of boat as we were going to take groups of people on canal trips whilst serving either High Tea or light lunches on the boat.

    Apart from the above we were also planning to buy two static caravans in different caravan parks and rent it out throughout the summer to add to the income we were to make from the narrow boat business. We had no proper business plan but we worked it all out amongst ourselves and came to the conclusion that we would be able to get the necessary money in per year to allow me to stay in the country.

    I then resigned my job by giving two weeks notice and I finished work on 12 Sept. 2014 (because of my short notice period there was no chance for me to be re-employed by this company later on). I was due to fly out on 24 September but I got overwhelmed of what to pack and what to leave and send later on and subesequently I cancelled my flight and booked another flight for the next night at additional costs.

    I flew out on 25 September 2014 and landed at Heathrow on 26 September 2014 (a Friday). At the airport when my ex fiancé was to put my suitcases into his car’s boot he was so short of breath that he couldn’t put my suitcases into the boot of the car and I had to do it myself which I didn’t mind but I was suddenly very alarmed about our proposed business with the narrow boat and the canal excursions, the opening and closing of the locks by him and any other physical activity he had to undertake in our businesses.

    I confronted him about his breathing and he said that it was quite bad – non of this was mentioned in our e-mails or telephone conversations of the last six or seven months prior to me resigning my job to go to the UK to marry him.

    On route to his home we stopped to pick up some groceries for our holiday that started on the Saturday. Once we got home I had to carry my own suitcases up the stairs as well as carry in the groceries.

    On the Saturday morning we left for our two yearly holiday in a caravan park in Chapel St. Leonards in Lincolnshire. His son took his suitcases downstairs and I took my own. I also loaded the car with all the groceries etc. we were going to need on our holiday – although the caravans are fully equipped we still had to take all of our own groceries (food, drinks etc.).

    At the caravan park I had to take care of all of the luggage, mine and his as well as the groceries etc. It was raining and he was in no state to handle any of the luggage or groceries.

    We had a pre-arranged meeting with another caravan park about 15 minutes away from the one we stayed at every two years. So on the Sunday we set off for our meeting – the caravan park gave us a free five course meal and they also sent him £20 for petrol.

    When we got there we were firstly offered the lunch and after lunch we met the guy who later on took us on a tour through the park (on a golf cart) and he also showed us all the caravans on offer.

    We decided on one caravan and my ex-fiance paid a deposit of £1000.00 on this caravan. We greeted the guy and thanked him for the lunch etc. then we walked out towards the car park. On route we looked around the entertainment areas to see exactly was on offer there for potential holidaymakers.

    Once we were in the car and started to drive towards the exit my ex-fiancé just suddenly said that he was going to cancel the caravan and that he wanted his deposit back. It was said out of the blue – no prior argument or discussion took place before this. I asked him why he wanted to do it and his reply was simply “because it is depreciationg value”.

    Well, that was me, floored, I had no words and just sank back into the passenger seat, my heart dropping down into my chest so to speak – I was so shocked. I could not talk, I was just too upset.

    Nevertheless, he stuck to his guns and couldn’t wait for the weekend to finish so he could phone the offices to cancel the deal and demand his deposit back. He carried on complaining for two weeks until finally he got the deposit back.

    Much later on I asked him about it and his only defence was that the caravans were depreciating value and he couldn’t see how it can work. From research into other caravan owners, people do make money out of hiring out such caravans and if it was depreciating value as he said (and as I know also)then he surely should have known just what exactly he let himself into long before I even resigned my job to come to the UK to marry him and to be with him.

    The rest of our holiday went as planned and I tried to remain positive and hoped for him to change his mind or come up with another plan to get me to stay there legally and go ahead with the marriage.

    I eventually flew back to South Africa in middle November 2014. I had already registered on several South African websites with the intent to find employment and I had also applied for various positions ever since he had cancelled the buying of the two caravans.

    I have lost thousands of rands in paying for my air tickets, visa and extra clothing, medication and many other things. I also had to pay R2500.00 to optain copies of my divorce certificate as there was no way that we cold get married unless I had proof that I was in fact divorced.

    Since I came back I had a few jobs but none were in my direct lines of work and matched my education and/or experience. In South Africa we also don’t get privileges such as Jobseekers allowance so I am purely having to rely on the kindness of friends and even strangers just to keep alive.

    I tried again last year to get my ex to find other ways for us to get marrried and be together – one was to still sell his house and buy a cheaper house and then with the money left in his savings there would e enough to allow me to stay in the UK.

    He came with different stories about why he could not sell the house – one was that he would have to pay back the Council for the stairlift that he had put in on their cost. Another one that he later claimed not to have been true was that he signed over the house for his one son to be able to get a mortgage to buy a house of his own.

    I still cannot remember the full scenario right now as I remember having heard conflicting stories of what exactly stopped him from selling his house to buy a cheaper one. Later on he confessed that he did not want to move to a new area with new hospitals and doctors that he had to learn to get to know all over again and that he rather wanted to stay where he was, quite close to both his two sons as well.

    He had also in the meantime (about two months ago) suddenly put on Facebook that he was in a relationship – only that now it was with someone else and no longer with me. I had before that taken off that I was in a relationship just to test him and see if he notices but he didn’t or he didn’t say anything and only when I mentioned his new relationship did he say something about it but he never mentioned that he noticed that I had chanced my status from being in a relationship to being single – he failed my test.

    I have not just given up a well paid job but I have lost thousands in having bought extra new clothing and other housewares to send over with me as well as the money I paid for my air ticket, my visa, copies of the divorce decree and other expenses I cannot think of at this minute.

    He had also stolen the last few years of my working life as I was 54 when I left for the UK and I am now 56 and have no income, am unemployed, have lost my social status, had to give up many things in my life (to go out dancing, meeting friends and even being unable to buy my children adn grandchild birthday or Christmas presents, having to go without household items, food, groceries, eating out and having a social life in general.

    I no longer have medical aid, my teeth needs urgent attention as I lost some teeth and have constant toothache. My satelite TV service had been cancelled, my funeral policies had been cancelled as well as my house insurance and my cancer policy.

    Apart from that my cell phone contract has been suspended for non-payment, my credit card is in arrears and a letter of demand has been sent to me, another debt is in arrears and I am awaiting the worst on that as well. My water/lights/rates & taxes bill with the local Municipality is around R40 000 and I am expecting my services to be cut at any time. My mortgage is continiously in arrears and there is the threat of possibly loosing my house.

    My warm water supply to my bathroom is not working as the pipe from the warm water geyser to the bathroom had burst inside the wall in April 2016. I did not have the money then to pay the excess on the insurance for it to be fixed and now that insurance has been cancelled months ago as I could no longer pay it. All this means that when anyone has a bath that person has to carry at least 6 buckets of hot water from the kitchen to the bathroom.

    I had to scrape money together to pay for some car repairs, an outer CV joint cover on the left hand side of the car then to get the alignment done. The right hand side also needs to be replaced but there is no money for it so I am driving in dangerous conditions. My daughter paid for new tyres for the car and I owe her that on top of what we owe her already from her having previously paid the bond.

    I am unable to find permanent suitable employment. A I have no income, I have become a recluse almost, not seeing anyone or phoning anyone much because of costs involved to do so.

    My whole quality of life had gone down since September 2014 and sometimes I have to scrape and borrow money even to buy my animals food. My cat recently got hurt and I did not even have money to take her to the SPCA never mind to a private vet. Luckily her injury was not serious, maybe it was a joint that was temporary dislocated up in her back leg near the thigh.

    My swimming pool has been green for months as there is no money for cheicals. My landline telephone is more often not paid than paid and so is my internet connection – both had been cut off in the recent past and I need them to look for employment on the internet. The internet doesn’t work without the landline telephone also being in service.

    I may have left out some detail but if I look at what I wrote to you there is quite a lot that I had given up and have gone without in the time since September 2014. Lastly, I had lost 15kg as a result of worry and stress and most of it was lost int he last three months. I came down from 83kg to 68kg without any dieting.

    I just feel that this person was not honest with me. Despite his health issues for which I do have sympathy he should not have encouraged me and made plans with me about marriage knowing that he was not well. He is now on oxygen for all of his waking hours apart from when he just sits down and his condition is getting worse.

    In the end he has the money to live and his health is bad whilst I am in excellent health but I don’t have money to live from – how do you choose between the two if you have to? The one is as bad as the other but I still feel that my future has been stolen from me.

    I must just lastly mention that I received my pension from my previous employer but that we lived from that for the first year and we also had several attempts to start up businesses but non had worked out – one was a truck my son used to do garden and house clearings but it kept breaking at least once a week and we eventually sold it at a loss.

    Without an income I can also not pay off my bond so when real retirement age comes to me I will again not have money to pay off the house.

    I am looking forward to hear from you.


    • hi Susarie– thank you for taking the time to post this. I empathize with what you have been through, and hope that things will somehow work out for the better. As you know, I do not provide legal advice through this website, but thank you again for sharing your story with me and all I can do at this point is suggest you contact a solicitor in your area to see if they would be willing to take your case on a contingency fee/ no win-no cost basis. All best to you.

  11. Pingback: Maria Smith

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *