ContractsProf Blog

Editor: D. A. Jeremy Telman
Valparaiso Univ. Law School

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Monday, December 9, 2013

Breach of a Promise to Marry

RingEvery once in a while, a student will send me a story about contracts, but when multiple students send me the same story, you know they must be desparate for a study break -- and that there is some rather comical contracts story in the news.

And so it is with this story about a woman who won a $50,000 judgment on her claim that her fiance had breached his promise to marry her.  A Georgia appellate court upheld the judgment, which included an award of attorney's fees, on appeal.   The court more or less treated the couple as married and upheld an award of roughly half the property acquired during the relationship, which was a house valued at $86,000.   The couple had co-habited for ten years and had a child together.  The woman had looked after the child, as well as one she had from a previous relationship.  

The man had had sexual relationships with other women both before and after he led his live-in partner to believe that he would marry her and gave her a ring worth $10,000.  For what it's worth, the woman also had other sexual relationships. 

According to media reports, the defendant's argument on appeal was that his alleged promise arose in the context of a meretricious relationship and was therefore unenforceable. Moreover, he denied any intention to marry.  He claims he never said "will you marry me" or words to that effect. He just gave her a ring.

The meretriciousness argument is rather confusing, as a defense to the claim that he broke a promise, since the promise was to cleanse the relationship of its meretriciousness.  As the appellate court noted, according to FoxNews, “the object of the contract is not illegal or against public policy.”  If we still live in a world in which courts think they can pass judgment on people's long-term relationships (and we seem to), then a court is likely to uphold an agreement that will "make an honest woman" of the plaintiff.  

The award of damages is also confusing.  the effect of the ruling seems to be to treat the couple as married even though they weren't.  In effect, the court is recognizing a common law marriage where such marriages do not seem to be recognized.  I suppose the court could do so as a mechanism of giving the woman her expectation for the broken promise.  The California Supreme Court endorsed such an approach in Marvin v. Marvin, but other courts have rejected marriage by judicial decree where the legislature has expressed its disapproval of recognition of common law marriages.

[JT]

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