The breach of a promise to marry is a common law right of action. Generally, defenses to actions for the breach of other kinds of contracts are defenses to actions for the breach of a contract to marry also. When a promise to marry is not a valid agreement or has precluded some essential elements of a valid contract, such mistakes can be claimed as a defense for breach of the contract. If the contract is a conditional one, a plaintiff’s failure to comply with the condition is also a defense for breach of contract. When a party to the contract is released from the contract or both the parties to the contract mutually abandon the contract, this can be a defense when there is an action for breach of a contract to marry[i]. If the contract is released based on a consideration, it can be a defense to a breach action.
If a plaintiff marries another person subsequent to initiation of action based on breach of a promise it cannot be a defense in the action. When a promisor was married at the time of making the promise to marry a promisee and the promisee in good faith believed in that promise, the prior marriage cannot be a defense in an action against breach of a promise to marry. The promisee should have no knowledge about the prior marriage of the promisor at the time of marriage. However, if the promisee knew about the promisor’s prior marriage and decided to continue with the contract believing in good faith that the prior marriage will be terminated, the promisee’s claim will not be defeated.
A promisor, who has committed a breach of a promise to marry, can offer a defense by putting forth a subsequent offer to marry[ii]. If the subsequent offer is in good faith, the offer can be considered as a relief to the damage that occurred due to breach of a promise to marry. When a defendant, after breaching his first contract to marry, offers to marry the plaintiff again and the plaintiff refuses the subsequent offer, the subsequent offer will not amount to a defense[iii]. This is because this subsequent offer is viewed as an offer to compromise[iv]. A subsequent offer to marry should be made in good faith[v]. It can be considered a defense before a plaintiff has decided to end the matter and conveyed her intention[iv].
When the parties cohabit after the breach of a promise to marry, no action against the breach will be valid. Even if the cohabitation occurs before action is instituted, but subsequent to the breach of a promise to marry, the cohabitation will constitute a valid defense[vii].
Another defense available to a defendant in an action for breach of a promise to marry is when the parties endanger life and health in the consummation of the marriage[viii]. The disease can be used as a defense for violating the promise if it is caused without the party’s intervening fault[ix]. The disease should be life threatening or that which would endanger the life of the other party. Although, when a disease is temporary and will only render a party to the contract less capable of discharging the duties of the marital relation, it is not a sufficient defense to justify a breach.
A party to the promise suffering from a hazardous disease is a proper defense for breach of a promise to marry if the disease renders the person unfit for marriage[x]. The defense can be adopted either by the person having the disease, or the other party to the promise[xi]. However, if a defendant has knowledge of the disability when he/she promises to marry the plaintiff, there is no defense[xii].
It is legally and morally wrong for a person who is infected with a loathsome, venereal and contagious disease, to marry[xiii]. Impotency and insanity can be claimed as defenses to breach of a promise to marry[xiv].
When a party to a promise of marriage has an illicit sexual relationship with any other person other than the party to the contract, the party can abstain from performing the agreement. This does not amount to breach of the promise[xv]. An illicit relationship of a party to a marriage with any other person other than the defendant can be a valid defense[xvi]. A defendant can use unchastity as a defense even if the defendant came to know about the incident after commencement of action by the plaintiff[xvii]. When the defense of unchsatity is used, it is presupposed that the defendant is not at fault[xviii]. If the defendant has seduced the plaintiff or had carnal intercourse with the plaintiff, or even condoned the plaintiff for fornication with others, the defendant cannot use the plaintiff’s misconduct as a defense[xix]. However, if the plaintiff has had only illicit sexual relationship with the defendant only before marriage it would not amount to be a defense for the defendant[xx]. If the defendant had prior knowledge that the plaintiff was unchaste at the time the promise was made, the defendant cannot use the defense of unchastity[xxi]. However, mere belief by the defendant that the plaintiff is guilty of unchastity will not be a defense in an action against breach of a promise to marry. The defendant should have ample evidence about the misconduct of the plaintiff to claim the defense[xxii].
[i] Dean v. Skiff, 128 Mass. 174 (Mass. 1880)
[ii] Fisher v. Barber, 62 Tex. Civ. App. 34 (Tex. Civ. App. 1910)
[iii] Vann v. Vehrs, 260 Ill. App. 3d 648 (Ill. App. Ct. 2d Dist. 1994)
[iv] Anderson v. Kirby, 125 Ga. 62 (Ga. 1906)
[v] Schaefer v. Schaefer, 379 So. 2d 864 (La.App. 4 Cir. 1980)
[vi] Adams v. Byerly, 123 Ind. 368 (Ind. 1890)
[vii] Devaney v. L’Esperance, 195 N.J. 247 (N.J. 2008)
[viii] Shepler v. Chamberlain, 226 Mich. 112 (Mich. 1924)
[ix] T v. M, 100 N.J. Super. 530 (Ch.Div. 1968)
[x] Trammell v. Vaughan, 158 Mo. 214 (Mo. 1900)
[xi] Grover v. Zook, 44 Wash. 489 (Wash. 1906)
[xii] Rhoades v. Rhoades, 10 N.J. Super. 432 (App.Div. 1950)
[xiii] Farden v. Farden, 13 N.J. Misc. 606 (Ch. 1935)
[xiv] Parks v. Marshall, 322 Mo. 218 (Mo. 1929)
[xv] Edmonds v. Hughes, 115 Ky. 561 (Ky. 1903)
[xvi] Flint v. Gilpin, 29 W. Va. 740 (W. Va. 1887)
[xvii] Knight v. State, 64 Tex. Crim. 541 (Tex. Crim. App. 1912)
[xviii] Clark v. Reese, 26 Tex. Civ. App. 619 (Tex. Civ. App. Austin 1901)
[xix] Barrett v. Vander-Muelen, 264 Ky. 441 (Ky. 1936)
[xx] Duval v. Davey, 32 Ohio St. 604 (Ohio 1877)
[xxi] ALBERTS v. ALBERTZ, 78 Wis. 72 (Wis. 1890)
[xxii] Lindquist v. Lindquist, 130 N.J. Eq. 11 (E. & A. 1941)