In Tennessee, breaching a promise to marry is grounds for a civil suit. The claim is interesting in that the nature of the analysis is essentially contractual, but damages are calculated for the tort of injury to reputation or character. In order to be a legal “promise to marry,” steps beyond a verbal statement must be taken: the promise must be in writing; signed by the party to be charged or proved by testimony of two unbiased witnesses; and all normal contract elements must be shown. As with any contract, the elements include a “meeting of the minds” and definite agreement on specific and explicit terms.
In order to be actionable, there must also be a breach of that contract. That breach can take several forms, the most common of which are verbal or written statement of refusal to marriage; nonperformance over an unreasonable period; and taking an action that prevents performance (such as marrying someone else or taking an oath of celibacy to become a priest). “An unreasonable period” should be easy to calculate, since a valid contract to marry should lay out a timeframe for performance.
When calculating the damages for breach of promise to marry, the court determines the extent of the injury to the plaintiff. Because there are no monetary damages, the court considers factors such as the age and experience of the plaintiff and the relationship between the parties after the breach – if the two remain close friends and continue as they had been, the breach caused little injury and damages may not be appropriate.
There exist also, of course, some defenses to a breach of promise to marry suit. If the suing party gave birth to a child other than that of the promisor, the promisor is not liable for the breach. If the marriage is illegal, the contract is unenforceable under normal contract principles. If the promise is to marry after one party obtains a divorce, the promise is unenforceable. If the promisor dies, the action abates; if the promisee dies, the action abates unless there is proof of special damage to his or her estate. If the promisor was not at the age of majority when the contract was created, the contract is invalid; the converse is not true.
This is just a brief overview of the breach of a promise to marry in Tennessee. The grounds for suit and the potential damages vary with the situation. Further information about family law issues can be found here.