Is Wrecking Your Engagement by an Affair, Better Than Wrecking Your Marriage by an Affair?…Maybe Not in Georgia

Posted By Austin Buerlein, Esq. On March 11, 2014

Although Georgia law does not recognize common law marriages, the relatively new case of Kelley v. Cooper, 751 SE2d. 889 (2013) explains potential risks of getting engaged in Georgia, and how a long-time significant other may be able to effectively take a "back-door" approach after a relationship is severed.

Specifically, the Kelley case stands for the proposition that in Georgia - unlike a majority of other U.S. states - a Promise to Marry is considered a legally binding contract, and a party who breaches that "contract" can still be held liable to the other party for any Damages that she/he sustained due to the broken promise, including financial damages, emotional damages, and even possibly punitive damages.

In the Kelley case, Christopher Kelley and Melissa Cooper resided together as boyfriend/girlfriend since 2002, and had a child outside of wedlock. In December 2004, Mr. Kelley gave to Ms. Cooper an expensive ring; although Mr. Kelley denied that he ever actually proposed (nor intended to ever propose) to Ms. Cooper, Ms. Cooper contended that Mr. Kelley did propose to her, and that she accepted. Ms. Cooper also introduced evidence at trial which suggested that Mr. Kelley had on occasion held the couple out to be engaged or married. According to Ms. Cooper's complaint, she quit her job at Mr. Kelley's request in order to be a stay-at-home homemaker and mother (for both her child with Kelley, as well as for her second child from a previous relationship).

After Ms. Cooper discovered that Mr. Kelley was having an ongoing affair with another woman, the relationship severed, and Mr. Kelley allegedly told Ms. Cooper that she needed to move out of the house. Ms. Cooper then filed a suit against Mr. Kelley seeking various damages, including for a Breach of Contract action - with the "contract" being his promise to marry her, and the "breach" being his conduct ruining their relationship by cheating on her at least twice. Although Mr. Kelley denied ever promising to marry Ms. Cooper, the trial court found that he was liable to Ms. Cooper under a Breach of Contract action for not fulfilling his promise to marry her (among other findings), and awarded Ms. Cooper a sum of $50,000 ($43,500 in damages, and $6,500 in attorney fees). On appeal, Mr. Kelley raised various arguments, including that because the promise to marry was part of a meretricious relationship it was not enforceable. The Court ultimately rejected all of his arguments, and upheld the trial court's ruling that a promise to marry is enforceable in Georgia.

Unlike Georgia, almost one-half of the U.S. states (including Alabama, New York, and California) forbid any action based on a broken promise to marry; essentially, these states do not consider a promise to marry to be a legally enforceable "Contract". In fact, some states, such as Florida, go as far as to hold a person (and her lawyer) criminally liable for pursuing an action based on a promise to marry, and clearly forbid recovery in either contract, conversion, alienation of affection, or seduction. See F.S.A. § 771.01; see also Hoffman v. Boyd, 698 So.2d 348 (1997) (holding "Any person, either as a party or attorney, who commences any proceeding seeking to enforce contract to marry is guilty of a misdemeanor of the second degree."). Additionally, numerous other states have enacted statutes that limit a plaintiff's rights in a Breach of Promise to Marry action to what amount of damages may and may not be recoverable. According to Wikipedia and other sites, the gradual movement by various states to abolish or limit actions based on a breach of promise to marry, is what sparked the trend by men to purchase expensive diamond engagement rings (as some sort of financial security and show of good faith for the woman).

However, as seen in the Kelley case, Georgia is highly distinguished from those states that have abolished, or even limited, actions based on a promise to marry. In contrast, it appears that Georgia still follows the common law right to sue on a breach of promise to marry, and allows a broken-hearted the right to pursue damages including:

Both past and future Financial damages - Such as loss of income, loss of a home or property, losses resulting from preparation for a wedding, loss of a prospective advantage that would have resulted from the marital relationship, etc.

Emotional damages - such as injury to her/his health, emotional state, or reputation. (See Morris v. Stanford, 58 Ga. App. 726 (1938) (holding in a breach of promise to marriage action, the injured female "may recover for pain, mortification and injury to her peace and happiness"). The value of these "damages" are to be determined by the "enlightened conscious" of the jury or judge.

A plaintiff may also be entitled to Punitive damages.

Furthermore, it is notable that a review of the case law in Georgia suggests that the "proposal" does not need to be crystal clear, and the standard is arguably more akin to "whether a reasonable person would have believed they were engaged to be married, based on their partner's conduct.

Of course, the Georgia Courts apply a different standard - and relief - to a Wife/Husband forced into a Divorce, then to a formerly engaged Girlfriend/Boyfriend forced to file a Breach of Promise to Marry action. For example, in a Divorce case, a spouse is entitled to "Equitable Division" (frequently meaning 50%) of all marital property that is acquired during the marriage, regardless of which party holds title to the property. Additionally, a spouse may also seek an award of Spousal Support ("Alimony") - if she/he can demonstrate to the trial court that it would be appropriate under the factors set forth in O.C.G.A. § 19-6-5; however, the Courts have held that the trial court can only award Alimony if, and to the extent, the Payor can in fact "afford" to pay it. (See Fried v. Fried, 211 Ga. 149; Childs v. Childs, 224 Ga. 531; Moon v. Moon, 237 Ga. 635; etc.). Generally, either spouse may be entitled to such relief in a divorce case, regardless of who asked for or caused the divorce.

In contrast, in a Breach of Promise to Marry case, generally only the innocent party is entitled to relief, and the plaintiff's right to recovery is limited to her/his "Damages" caused by the breach. The damaged party is not entitled to any interest in any of the other party's property, nor are they entitled to Spousal Support/Alimony. However, as previously explained, the Damages in a Breach of Promise action are not only limited to past and future financial damages, but they also may include "emotional"/compensatory damages, as well as potentially even punitive damages. Furthermore, notably, in Breach of Promise lawsuit, the judge or jury is not required (or arguably allowed) to consider certain limitations on recovery that would apply in a Divorce case - for example, "whether or not the defendant can afford to pay the plaintiff her requested damages." [Contrast this with a divorce case, where the jury or judge is required to consider a defendant's ability to afford to pay the amount requested by a plaintiff, and may never award a plaintiff more Alimony than the defendant can "afford." [Fried; Childs; Moon].

Generally speaking, a cheated on spouse forced into divorce will fare better in a Divorce case, then would a cheated on fiancé in a Breach of Promise to Marry action. However, the opposite may also apply. To illustrate, take for example the following hypothetical scenario:

Harry and Wendy have been [engaged][married] for almost two years. 1.5 years ago, Harry convinced Wendy to quit her job as a teacher earning $60,000 a year, in order to be a stay-at-home homemaker, and help raise Harry's children from a prior marriage. After 2 years of [engagement][marriage], Harry discloses to Wendy that he has been involved in a romantic relationship with one of Wendy's friends, and he wants to [call off the engagement][divorce]. As the parties have been living above their means, and Harry's income has recently drastically decreased due to the economy, the parties own no property of value.

In the above fact pattern, Wendy would likely be entitled to recover a higher award under a Breach of Promise action than she would in a Divorce case. In fact, in a Divorce case, Wendy would likely not be able to recover anything from Harry, as there is no marital property to divide, and it has been this author's experience that few courts would award Wendy much if any Alimony under these circumstances (given it is such a short term marriage, and Harry's clear lack of "the ability to afford" Alimony). In contrast, in a Breach of Promise action, Wendy may be able to recover the full value of her damages, including those associated with removing herself from the working world (which may include the costs to get recertified as a teacher, her lost salary of $60,000 per year until she can secure a comparable salary again, etc.), as well as potentially recover for damages related to her emotional state or reputation (that she will reasonably suffer after learning her fiancé is leaving her for her good friend), as well as potentially pursue punitive damages; and Harry's defense that he cannot afford to pay Wendy these damages should fall on deaf ears.

In conclusion, do not breach a promise to marry - or, at least, do not do so in Georgia (do it in a state such as Florida, if you must). As demonstrated in the fact pattern above, as well as likely the result in the Kelley case, the financial consequences of breaching a promise to marry in Georgia may be even more severe than they would be if you were married.

Additionally, it is advisable for those who are in long term relationships, with no intent to marry, to beware of the holding in the Kelley case. Although it is true that Georgia does not recognize common law marriages, a manipulative or dishonest significant other may use certain "good deeds" (e.g., a diamond ring, living together, holding yourself out to friends as married, jointly titled accounts or insurance, etc.) against you in an argument that you were "engaged" - that they concoct after getting sour grapes because the relationship did not work out as they envisioned.

*********

References for this Blog include:

Legal authority cited herein

Georgia court orders man pay one-time fiancé $50,000 for breaking promise to marry her (Fox News)

Cheating Georgia man ordered to pay ex $50,000 for breaking promise to marry (NY Daily News)

Man must pay $50k for breaking promise to marry

Margaret F. Brinig, "Rings and Promises", Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization. Vol. 6, No. 1, pp. 203-215 (Spring 1990).

Tags: Broken Engagement, Diamond ring, Divorce, Kelley v. Cooper, Promise to Marry, Separate v. Marital Property