Washington Law Review


Since its inception in the seventeenth century, the common-law action for breach of promise to marry has been the subject of recurrent legal debates. Beginning in the 1930s, some states began passing statutes that abolished the action altogether. Even so, today about half of American jurisdictions retain the breach-of-promise action in some form. This Article advocates a compromise that is not currently the law in any American jurisdiction: parties who breach promises to marry should be liable for damages, but only to the extent they have induced reliance by those to whom they were formerly engaged. Under this proposed model, courts would employ promissory estoppel to define both the nature and scope of damages available to those aggrieved by broken nuptial promises. Through the prism of promissory estoppel, this Article re-examines the broad range of damages courts traditionally awarded breach-of-promise plaintiffs at common law and explains why, given modem social conditions, reliance damages are the only appropriate elements of recovery. In this context, reliance damages would include provision both for expenditures made and economic opportunities foregone in anticipation of marriage. The reliance-based approach advocated in this Article would encourage responsibility, honesty, and forthrightness in romantic relationships, but avoid the abuses associated with the historical breach-of-promise action.

First Page