Reported today on MSNBC is the lawsuit filed in Illinois by a 32 year old attorney against her 31 year old fiancé who decided four days before the wedding that marriage was not right for him. The bride had already reserved the banquet facility for $30,000 and contracted for entertainment and decorations totaling an additional $21,000. The wedding dress was reported to cost an additional $5,000. The total claim for breach of promise to marry and infliction of emotional distress is recorded at $95,000.
Is this a viable claim? It may be. After all the damages are very real as not many caterers, bands or others in the high price wedding business are going to be offering refunds. The law on this subject is not clear. In a 1999 Supreme Court of Pennsylvania case it was ruled that an engagement ring is a conditional gift that becomes irrevocable upon marriage and that even if the party proposing marriage is the one giving the ring and he calls the engagement off he gets the ring back. Lindh v. Surman, 560 Pa. 1.
But there is another legal doctrine lurking in the mists. The doctrine of promissory estoppel can sometimes be substituted for actual contractual intent. If bride and groom agree to pay for a wedding together, there is a mutual promise for the court to enforce. But suppose the groom goes with bride to select a gown that she will pay $5,000 to acquire while knowing that he is not really committed to the enterprise. The road of romance is paved with unspoken understandings and this is precisely where problems occur. When he calls off the wedding, it is probably clear that he did not actually promise to pay for the dress but can he say that he has no responsibility in a world where he stood and watched a woman buy the dress based upon their engagement to be married? Does he have the right to argue to a court that while he might have some responsibility, he thought it was a ridiculous amount to pay for a one day dress. Better yet, isn’t the real argument that she can use the dress for her next wedding.
Lawyers make money when clients don’t reveal their expectations. Weddings are a prime example. The wedding industry is a $40 billion dollar business where the average cost is $21,000. Typically, most of that $21,000 is either deposited or financially committed before the limo arrives to get the bride. Common sense and the history of our lawyer bride in Chicago dictates that understandings about who is paying for what and when should be memorialized in a way that provides a roadmap to cover the damages if the event of a lifetime unexpectedly runs off the highway.