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Breach of the Promise to Marry

When you think of weddings, you probably don’t think of lawsuits.  You think of the gown, dresses and tuxedos, flowers, band, the venue, photographer, food and caterers, the honeymoon and a host of other things related to the event.  When an engagement falls through and money has been spent, there may be financial relief available by a claim of breach of the promise to marry (BOTP). These cases are rare, and in our state, they go at least as far back as 1805, and as recently as 2012. See Gaskill v. Dixon, 3 NC 350 (1805) and Dellinger v. Barnes, 159 NC 462 (2012).

These claims came to the colonies from England, and were very popular here for some time. Originally, women had much to lose when there was a broken engagement, such as the loss of a certain position in society, and anticipated future support.  When society valued young brides, becoming an “old maid” while waiting to be married could have a significant financial consequence.  As the role of women changed, claims for BOTP became controversial.  Many states have abolished BOTP claims but North Carolina still recognizes them.

BOTP cases are based on contract law. As such, an agreement requires one person to make an offer, and another to accept it. The promise may be verbal or implied, such as the bended knee and wearing the ring. Some describe these cases as a hybrid of both contract law and torts.  A tort is a civil wrong (not criminal).  In these cases, the promise is based on wrongful conduct related to a personal/legal relationship.

Any contract is void when someone who entered into it fraudulently or while under duress. The parties must be able to marry at the time the promise is made.  For example, being separated from a spouse (spouse #1) but not yet divorced means there can be no valid contact to marry spouse #2.  See Hutchins v. Day, 269 N.C. 607 (1967).  Another defense to BOTP is venereal disease, at least until it is cured.  BOTP cases may only be filed within three years of the time the promise is broken.  N.C. Gen. Stat. 1-52(1). The person sued for BOTP may also use the defense of chastity (i.e., refraining from sexual intercourse with a third-party).

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