COMMENTARY | Many people have suffered financial loss due to a breakup. One partner alters his or her education, job search, job, work schedule, or career path to continue or advance the relationship and – bam! – the other partner splits. Traditionally, only married spouses can expect financial recompense when a relationship dissolves…but that may be changing due to a ruling in Georgia. According to ABC, an appeals court in the state just affirmed a trial court’s decision to award $50,000 from Christopher Ned Kelly to his ex-fiance, Melissa Cooper. The basis? Kelly’s December 2004 engagement to Cooper constituted a promise to marry that is enforceable.
Given the frequency of broken engagements leaving behind scorned and angry lovers, expect the ruling that financial damages are possible to create a big brouhaha.
The reward came despite Kelly claiming that there had never been “very many” discussions about marriage and that he himself had “never initiated” any of the discussions, as well as Cooper admitting to her own infidelity during the lengthy engagement. Therefore, the party who ends the engagement may be financially liable even if there is no clear path to the altar and the other party is imperfect in maintaining relationship expectations. Yikes!
Of course, many questions abound in the aftermath of the Georgia case:
First, does it matter who proposed to whom? Kelly is liable due to his ending the engagement, but he was also the proposer, offering Cooper a $10,000 ring. If one accepts a proposal and later is the one to end the engagement, would a court treat the acceptance of the original proposal as an equal promise to marry? Or would the respondent (defendant) be allowed to say “I never proposed, I only said ‘yes’ to a proposal”?
Secondly, at what point do “damages” become actionable? After all, isn’t financial sacrifice a routine part of most romantic relationships? How fairly could courts determine the financial losses caused by broken engagements versus normal, unavoidable events like economic downturns or changing job markets? For example, if the plaintiff alleges financial damages due to job loss caused by moving across the country with his or her fiance and having to seek new employment, not finding suitable employment prior to the dissolution of the engagement, is the dumper fully responsible? It would likely be unfair for a court to find the engagement-ender liable for the partner’s long-term unemployment if a nationwide recession was in effect.
How much of an ex-fiance’s unemployment, therefore, should an engagement-ender be liable for? Six months? One year? The “reasonable person” standard could differ significantly based on the state of the macro economy.
Third, sexism looms large. Would a court levy damages against a woman for ending an engagement with a man? Are there different expectations regarding engagement responsibilities based on gender? Certainly, gender norms in romance remain firmly entrenched. Juries are likely to be more harsh toward male engagement-enders than female engagement-enders. Additionally, would there be different expectations of how long it should have taken the plaintiff to find new employment and financial security post-breakup based on gender? Could men only be entitled to damages for six months of unemployment caused by a broken engagement while women were entitled to one year?
Fourth, could the threat of damages keep unhappy couples stuck together? Many unhappy engagements could struggle onward, with neither fiance content, due to fear that the one who ended the relationship first would be slapped with a lawsuit. This is especially true in the event that both partners were unemployed after moving to a new region to look for work. Either party could allege that his or her unemployment was due to moving at the request of the other party, turning the case into an agonizing “he said/she said” debate. Forcing unhappy couples to remain together due to fear of post-breakup legal action could result in increased incidence of depression, poor health, and even domestic violence.
Fifth and final, how formal must an engagement be for the “promise to marry” to be actionable? Must there be a ring? How much evidence of a formal engagement must exist? Many respondents (defendants) would likely be quick to claim that the engagement, especially if no ring existed, was “just pillow talk.” Would things said in the heat of passion or while snuggling afterwards carry weight in court?
Considering these five major complications, I feel that it is unwise for courts to set wide precedent based on this Georgia case.