Legal Consequences of a Breach of Promise to Marry

A promise to marry may give rise to a contract to marry. Where a promise to marry is made it can be seen as a valid contract, and the breach of said valid contract can lead to the jilted party bringing an action in court and such party can sue for damages. However, before a promise to marry can have the effect of a contract it must have fulfilled all the elements of a valid contract

Black’s Law Dictionary defines a contract as An agreement between two or more parties creating obligations that are enforceable or otherwise recognizable at law. For a party to claim a breach of a contract, such a contract must be existing between parties, there must be an agreement between two parties, and such agreement does not have to be written. It can be a spoken contract or can be inferred from the actions of the parties.

The court in the case of Cole v. Cottingham defined Promise to marry as a binding contract.
In the case of Ezennah vs Atta which is a major judicial precedence in Nigeria for breach of promise to marry, The Supreme Court of Nigeria stated that two vital elements lead or constitute a breach of promise to marry;
a. The party asserting must prove to the satisfaction of the court that there was indeed a promise to marry under the Matrimonial Causes Act, 1990, Islamic law or Customary law of Nigeria and;
b. The defendant is in actual breach of that promise.
For a promise to marry to be seen as a contract all the elements of a valid contract must be in existence, that is;

  • Offer; a proposal of marriage made by one party to another. This proposal could be made in any form as long as there is a clear intention of marriage expressed.
  • Acceptance; The offer of marriage must have been accepted by the party the offer was made to. The acceptance must be expressly communicated.
  • Capacity; before a person can make a promise to marry he must have the capacity to be married. Both parties must be of a “marriageable age” and sound mind. A minor or insane person cannot enter into a valid contract.

A promise to marry can be breached in either of the following ways;
(a)Non-performance: Non-Performance means that a party is refusing to go ahead with the promise as at when due or the party refuses to take steps in the actualization of the said promise, therefore, resulting in extremely long ‘engagement’.
(b)In anticipation also known as Anticipatory Breach of promise to marry: Anticipatory Breach on the other hand occurs when a party declares his/her intention not to perform the obligation as promised on the due date or by their performance it is impossible for the promise to be fulfilled on the agreed date.

Promise to marry is regulated by the principles guiding contracts. A person claiming a breach of promise to marry may apply to the court for the award of damages occasioned as a result of such breach. These damages may either be;
a. General damages
b. Special damages
Before a claim of damage can be brought, the quantum of damages will be calculated according to the remoteness of the breach as it relates to damage caused. That is the damage claimed must be as a result of the breach of promise to marry. In essence, a person cannot bring a claim damages for breach of promise to marry if such breach does not directly cause them injury or other valid disadvantages in the eyes of the law.

It is important to note that defense can be made by the other party against who the claim is brought against. The defense applicable to contracts applies to a breach of promise to marry. This includes but is not limited to a plea of fraud, duress, misrepresentation, etc. Where a promise to marry is made due to misrepresentation of facts or fraud, then a defendant may plead fraud or misrepresentation

In conclusion, for a claim of breach of promise to marry to be successful, the party making the claim must prove that there was indeed a promise to marry made by the other party, and secondly, the party making the claim must prove that the other party failed to fulfil the promise to marry, and that such failure has caused him/her to suffer certain damages.

• Ezra a very. Attah  (2004) LPELR – 1198 (SC) 
• Cole v. Cottingham (1837) 8 CAR, P. 75, 173 ER 406
• Breach of Promise of Marriage: A Legal Perspective
• Breach Of Promise To Marry In Nigeria: What You Need To Know By Chinedu Innocent Nwobodo
• Breach Of Promise To Marry (A Short Legal Break Down)


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