Lis on Law: Breach of Promise to Marry

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Oh the things we do for love. From small sacrifices like giving up the remote control, to big sacrifices like changing jobs and moving across state lines, love makes us do some daring and risky things. Of course if we start hearing wedding bells, our romantic side can give way to our practical side. The summer season plays host to 40 percent of US weddings, and if it's your first wedding, you could be in the 5-10 percent of people who sign a prenuptial. If it's your second marriage, you could be in the over 20 percent of people who sign a prenuptial.

A quick Internet search on prenups will give you all the information you ever dreamed of, and then some. But while there is protection after the "I do's" are said, what about after a woman says, "I will?" Some of the biggest sacrifices people make are in preparation for a wedding, for example breaking your lease to move in with your fiancé. Everyone knows that there are ways to protect yourself once you're married, but what about that precious time between popping the question and tying the knot? A verbal agreement to marry is just that, a verbal promise. Many of us have heard that a verbal promise is as good as the piece of paper it's written on, but what you haven't heard is that some states do safeguard the imaginary piece of paper.

RoseMary Shell is one woman who has made use of the legal system's safeguard of verbal promises when she sued her fiancé for a breach of promise to marry. In 2001, RoseMary met Wayne Gibbs in Gainesville, Georgia. Both divorcees, and with older children, they planned to marry in 2005 once RoseMary's youngest son left for college. But move-in day at the dorms came and went without any wedding bells, and RoseMary called it quits.

She moved to Pensacola, Florida, found a job in human resources that paid $81,000 plus benefits, and moved on with her life. But in October of 2006, Wayne asked RoseMary to move back to Gainesville, and to move in with him. The two discussed RoseMary's job situation, as well as various debts that she had, and ultimately Wayne asked RoseMary to marry him. RoseMary found a job that paid around $30,000, and Wayne agreed to help her with her debt. He proposed with a 2-carat diamond ring, and the wedding was set for December 2nd.

A few days before the wedding and shortly after RoseMary moved back to Gainesville, the groom-to-be came down with a case of cold feet and expressed some hesitation about the marriage. Wayne left a note in the bathroom telling RoseMary he thought they should postpone the wedding. Ultimately, the two split up for good three months later, and three months after that RoseMary slapped her ex-fiancé with a lawsuit.

RoseMary's lawyer, Lydia Sartain, explains that this type of cause of action is not as rare as you might initially think. "It's really not an unusual case, it's not unheard of and there's this cause of action in states across the country." While it's true that some states allow a person to sue for a broken engagement, it's important to note that some don't. For example, under New York Civil Rights Law, Article 8 abolishes actions for breach of contract to marry. The article reads, in part, "The rights of action to recover sums of money as damages for alienation of affections, criminal conversation, seduction, or breach of contract to marry are abolished…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."

But some states, like Georgia, do allow so-called "jilted brides" (or grooms) to sue a fiancé that breaks an engagement. The law basically treats a broken engagement like a breach of contract. If two people agree to perform, and one party relies on that agreement to their detriment, that party is entitled to compensation. The tricky part is that an action for a breach of promise to marry seems to be very fact specific. RoseMary herself said she was surprised by the amount that the jury awarded her, $150,000, but she felt that justice was served, "primarily because he made a promise to me and I relied on that promise and gave up a lot of things because of that promise and I suffered significantly for it."

RoseMary's lawyer was hesitant to file such an action, not just because it's difficult to show reliance on an engagement to the point of actual suffering, but also because they were trying the case in Georgia. "Here we were of course concerned about it because Gainesville Hall County is a very conservative area, very republican, juries are conservative and render conservative verdicts…but we just felt so strongly that in this case he had told her to quit her job in reliance on his promise, he came to her in Florida and moved her back into his house, took steps above and beyond the usual will you marry me, lets plan a wedding, and then somebody backs out. Here he caused her to do things in reliance on his promise he knew he was having her do it."

Lydia Sartain isn't the only one who supports actions for a breach of promise to marry. Judge Kathlene Gosselin instructed the jury that these actions are a common law contract action. Meanwhile, Wayne's attorney said that there was only one prior lawsuit filed in Georgia over the past 25 years for breaking an engagement. It seems that there are now two more to add to the list- RoseMary and Wendy Louise Webb, who filed a few days after RoseMary won her case. While she may have awakened women to this new legal protection, RoseMary also has the added bonus of keeping the engagement ring. Georgia is one state that does not consider engagement rings as conditional gifts, so she can keep it. But will she sell the gem? "Most definitely. It means nothing now."


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Lis Wiehl joined FOX News Channel as a legal analyst in October 2001. To read the rest of Lis's bio, click here.