Evolution of Heart Balm Laws


Early on in American jurisprudence, i.e., prior to 1930’s, women were able to recover damages when men promised marriage and then fail to carry out a promise or commitment; the action was known simply as “breach of promise.”  These cases were primarily concerned with remedying the financial harms of a broken engagement; eventually, the action was reconceptualized over time as one centering around emotional wounds.  From the 1930’s through the 1950’s, a wave of anti-Heartbalm proposals swept the United States.  Indiana became the first state to legislate on the abolishment of alienation of affections and criminal conversation.  The Indiana act, entitled “An Act to promote public morals,” abolished all of the heart balm torts, including breach of a promise to marry and seduction of a female over the age of twenty-one. Responding to charges that heartbalm actions enabled designing women to blackmail worthy men, legislators in many states passed statutes eliminating breach-of-promise and related actions.
Generally, it has been stated that:

Common law action for breach of promise to marry is combining elements of both tort and contract, in which the plaintiff sues the defendant for breaching an agreement between them to marry. The action has been severely, and almost uniformly, criticized as being outdated, contrary to modern notions of justice, and subject to abuse by blackmail. Beginning in 1935, many states enacted sweeping statutes colloquially called “heart balm” acts that abolished actions for breach of promise to marry and often abolished the related common law actions for alienation of affections, criminal conversation, and seduction as well.  As of 1985, twenty-two states and the District of Columbia had enacted some form of heart balm legislation. 
With respect to most heart balm laws, the issue arises as to whether such laws bar all suits involving a marriage promise or whether they bar breach of promise to marry suits but allow other actions. Such as, an action to recover an engagement gift or other gift given in contemplation of marriage where such marriage does not ensue based on traditional common law and equity.  After antiheartbalm statutes were passed, courts had to define their boundaries.  Many courts found that “when a harm sprang, not from the loss of a particular person’s love . . . but from gifts in anticipation of marriage, . . . antiheartbalm principles were not implicated.”  The Court’s in a number of decisions such as, Norman v. Burks, 209 P.2d 815, 817 (Cal. Dist. Ct. App. 1949); Gill v. Shively, 320 So.2d 415, 416-17 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1975); Vann v. Vehrs, 633 N.E.2d 02, 104 (Ill. App. Ct. 1994); DeCicco v. Barker, 159 N.E.2d 534, 535 (Mass. 1959); Gikas v. Nicholis, 71 A.2d 785, 786 (N.H. 1950); Beberma v. Segal, 69 A.2d 587 (N.J. Super. Ct. Law Dir. 1949); and Wilson v. Dabo, 461 N.E.2d 8, 9-10 (Ohio Ct. App. 1983),  , carved out a common law exception to their state’s anti-heart balm laws for the recovery of gifts given in contemplation of marriage  The theory behind this approach was that since the Legislature thought it fit to bar all actions for breach of contract to marry, it was not necessary for a woman to return a gift given in contemplation of marriage, “even when they had themselves broken their engagements.”