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Underlying Policies of the Statutes

Three principal reasons have traditionally been cited for the enactment of the heartbalm statutesThe first is that the breach of promise action results in excessive damage verdicts, far out of line with the injury claimed, that contribute to offensive publicity for both defendants and the courts.  Under a normal breach of promise action which is still available today in a majority of states, plaintiffs may sue to recover for a large assortment of tort and contract damages: personal injuries such as mental and emotional suffering and illness, damage to reputation, humiliation, embarrassment, out-of-pocket expenses, “loss of worldly advantage” (expectation of sharing defendant’s wealth, social position, home, and other marital incidents), and punitive damages. Because evidence of defendant’s wealth is also usually admitted, the potential for excessive jury verdicts is manifestly very high.  In addition, because the action generally gives the jury almost unchecked discretion to calculate a remedy, commentators and jurists have argued that it encourages the jurors to express their emotional sympathy with the plaintiff in the form of higher damages.  Furthermore, jurors were using improper considerations for determining the amount of judgments.

The second reason cited for the enactment of the heartbalm acts is that there occur a lot of frivolous claim and excessive verdicts surrounding breach of promise suits.  The main reason for enacting heartbalm statutes is because of the abuse by unscrupulous people filing meritless claims.  Frivolous claims were used against men as instruments of blackmail or as a way of coercing marriages no longer desired by both parties.  Because courts and juries invariably implied a marriage promise simply from evidence of association between the man and woman, and since no corroborating testimony was necessary to maintain the action, clever plaintiffs could easily put together the necessary elements of a suit.  

   The third reason for the enactment of the heartbalm statute is that society has so changed that being a victim of a breached marriage promise is no longer viewed as an injury sufficiently deserving of judicial remedy.  Courts and commentators have recognized that marriage is no longer considered to be primarily a property transaction, but has come to be seen as a union of love.  Engagements are now viewed as important trial periods when couples can determine if they do indeed want to commit to each other, and during which the freedom to decline marriage without sanction is essential.  Enforcing marriage promises destroys the social utility of this trial period, making it “as expensive to get engaged as it is to get married.”  The derisive term “heartbalm” attached to the breach of promise action is an indication that public policy no longer considers money damages appropriate for what is perceived as only an ordinary broken heart.

Inside Underlying Policies of the Statutes