Breaking promise to marry: is it a crime?

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promise to marry

Times and seasons have continued to change and the world is gradually moving away from the act of matchmaking persons for marriage and as such persons are allowed to choose their own future marriage partner.

The final decision of choosing a future partner comes with a prior stage of courting or dating where both partners get to know each other more just before they agree to marry one another.

Many a-times, after the promise, persons break off the engagement proposal just before the marriage for obvious reasons, putting the other party at a precarious state.

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The idea of “Marriage” is seen as a contract under the law and as such, the law would treat it with every implication as it would with any other kind of contract.

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Generally, where there is a contract between two persons to carry out any act, where a party to the contract has failed to carry out his own part of the contract, such person becomes legally liable for breaching the terms of the contract, i.e. such person could be brought before a competent court of jurisdiction for failing to fulfill his own side of the contract and damages may be awarded in favor of the complainant.

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Consequently, where a man has promised to marry a woman and thereafter, goes ahead to break the promise or calls of the engagement, he would be liable for breach of promise to marry and action for damages could be brought against him.

In the case of FROST v. KNIGHT (1872) LR EXCH 111, the defendant had agreed and promised to marry the plaintiff upon the death of his father. But during the life time of his father, he married another woman. By so doing, he by his conduct effectively disabled himself from performing  his promise. He had committed an anticipatory breach of contract. Without waiting for the death of the father, the plaintiff sued immediately for breach of promise of marriage.

The effect of a breach of a contract, marriage inclusive, is that an action for damages (monetary or punitive) could be brought against the defaulting party. Monetary damages is where the court orders the defaulting party to pay a certain amount to the complainant and punitive damages is any sort of punishment ordered by the court. Again, the court could order that the defaulter carries out his own part of the contract.

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It should be borne in mind that where the breach of the promise to marry arises due to the actions of the the other party, an action in court cannot be brought for failure to fulfill the marriage promise.

Another issue is the promises that married persons make to each other and in the end fail to fulfill those promises. Whether or not, failure to fulfill those promises are actionable in court?

In the case of BALFOUR v. BALFOUR (1919) 2 K.B 571 a briton was employed by the Government of Ceylon. He returned home on leave with his wife, but his wife was unable to go back with him because of ill-health. He then promised to make her an allowance of 30 pounds a month until she joined him. When he failed to make this payment, she sued him to enforce the promise. The court held that “there was no contract between the parties because the contractual intention is absent in cases between husbands and wives. As a natural consequences of their relationship, spouses make numerous agreements involving payment of money and its application to the household, themselves and their children. Holding that there is offer, acceptance and consideration; nevertheless, such agreements are not contracts because the parties did not intend that they should be attended by legal consequences

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The position above was ably fortified by the decisions of the court in the case of SPELLMAN v. SPELLMAN (1961) 1 W.L.R 921 where a husband promised to buy his wife a car in order to improve their strained relations. He then entered into a hire-purchase agreement in respect of the car which was delivered to their home. When he refused to transfer the car to his wife, she sued him to enforce the agreement. It was  held that “this was purely a domestic arrangement not intended to create create any legal relations and accordingly the wife acquired no legal rights in the car.”

However, the above principle is could be rebutted as it has been held that where spouses are not living in amity, particularly where the relationship between them has degenerated to the level of mutual hostility and distrust, an agreement between them would be binding.

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