Thursday, July 31, 2008

Marriage Proposal: A Legally Binding Contract?

Ms. Shell, who left her $80k/yr job in Florida to move in with Mr. Gibbs, decided to sue Mr. Gibbs after he called off the wedding. A jury in Georgia awarded Ms. Shell $150k for the financial detriment she incurred relying on Mr. Gibbs' marriage proposal. She even got to keep the engagement ring. Here is the article.

The issue here is whether Mr. Gibbs' marriage proposal amounted to a binding contract. First off, this smells like a frivolous lawsuit with possibly dangerous slippery slope concerns. Folks call off weddings all the time. It seems if this case is cited often enough, it will make it into the corpus juris, and, in turn, will have a chilling effect on folks thinking about popping the question. (Ok, I admit, this may strike some as silly). But at the least, it just makes for an awkward situation like having a prenuptial agreement. You really don't want one, but you sort of need one just in case. Plus, such a personal decision in my opinion should be kept out of the courts, or at least should be rendered in-actionable under contract law. Contract law should be kept to business and commercial disputes.

Well, without the benefit of reading the court's jury instructions, let's see if we can do a quick and dirty contract law analysis here and see if the elements are present. So the ultimate question again is, can this oral promise to marry be enforced by law? First, let's consider this in a standard contract theory. Generally speaking, the three elements of a binding contract is that there must be an offer, acceptance, and "consideration" for the transaction.

For example, Scenario #1: I see my neighbor's beautiful classic mustang convertible and I go over and offer $100k for it. My neighbor accepts. Assuming we put the offer and acceptance in writing and sign the document, the $100k is my necessary consideration that now creates a binding contract. My neigbor's consideration is of course his classic mustang. This is the simplest form of a binding contract.

However, not all contracts are created equal. Scenario #2: Say on Monday I go over to my neighbor and offer $100k for the car, and my neighbor accepts. We decide that the actual transfer of money and car will take place on Friday. I've made an oral promise. Say further that my neighbor, relying on my oral promise, goes to a car dealer and picks out a beautiful BMW and signs a contract to consummate the transaction on Saturday. He is now bound by that contract and must purchase the BMW on Saturday. But what if I rescind my offer? My neighbor's got some problems since now he is legally obligated to buy that BMW but now that I've backed out of my promise to pay him $100k for his classic mustang, he cannot purchase the BMW. He won't have the money by Saturday.

This scenario seems pretty analogous to the marriage proposal situation (although its absurd at the same time to compare a purchase of an auto with a marriage). Mr. Gibbs offered Ms. Shell a two-carat engagement ring (the consideration) for her hand in marriage. Relying on Mr. Gibbs' promise, Ms. Shell left her lucrative career in Florida and moved in with Mr. Gibbs. Mr. Gibbs, however, calls off the wedding and now Mrs. Shell is left with a $30k job in Georgia.

There seems to be 2 ways that Ms. Shell could have framed her complaint - 1) arguing that Mr. Gibbs' oral promise created a binding contract, and, in the alternative, 2) that his oral promise is legally binding under the promissory estoppel doctrine.

Here, and in Scenario #2, we don't have a written contract, but an oral promise. But if the engagement ring is considered Mr. Gibbs' consideration for Ms. Shell's hand in marriage, then it seems to me there could be a binding contract and relying on a promissory estoppel theory is obviated. But it also seems the easier, and probably the more effective theory to go on would be promissory estoppel.

There are four elements of promissory estoppel: 1) the promise had to have been unequivocal, 2) the promisee justifiably relied on the unequivocal promise, 3) the promisee's reliance was substantial and of definite character, and 4) enforcing the promise will serve the interests of justice, ergo, society.

Well, let's see here, I presume Mr. Gibbs' proposal was unequivocal. I picture him getting down on a knee, popping open the jewelry box, and bling bling, "Will you marry me." That's pretty unequivocal. And I can't imagine how you could muddy a marriage proposal. So element one, check. Did Ms. Shell justifiably rely on the proposal? Well, obviously she said yes. And she quit her lucrative job in Florida and moved in with Mr. Gibbs in Georgia. Although I'd argue that this was simply bad judgment on her part, and, therefore, unjustified, I guess a sympathetic jury could, and probably did, find that her reliance was justified. Was it substantial and of definite character? I haven't checked case law on the meaning of the words "substantial" and "definite character," but, it wasn't like she left her job in Florida and never got a job thereafter. She got a job making about $30k at a community college in Georgia. Again, it's arguable. Lastly, will enforcing his promise be in the interest of justice? I think this is the most subjective of all four elements and depends critically on the make-up of the jury. I'd argue that engagements are called off all the time and holding Mr. Gibbs legally liable for his decision to call it off and Ms. Shell's bad judgment contributes to an already litigious society and has dangerous slippery slope implications. And therefore, the deleterious effects on society by holding Mr. Gibbs liable outweighs any such effect from a contrary holding (such as, I guess, holding men liable in order to protect vulnerable women after they have made a bad call? Which seems terribly paternalistic and completely contrary to a feminisit mindset, although I guess women propose marriage too, in which case it would be protecting vulnerable men). But once again, reasonable arguments could be made for both sides.

Ultimately, (without knowing what law was given to the jury) I think this jury got it wrong. I suspect the jury used their hearts more than their heads. I leave you with a similar hypothetical: Say I promise Beautiful to take her to the prom. She relies on my promise and buys a prom dress. The day before, I decide to take More Beautiful instead. Yea, it's a boorish thing to do, but would you be comfortable allowing her to sue me for that? I mean, come one, we can't rely on the law to right every wrong. The law is not the answer to all injustices in life. There is a dangerous slippery slope here and it only adds to an already litigious society.


Kenneth said...

You have ignored the long legal tradition of this most ancient subject.

Of course marriage is an intensely personal, but that makes it MORE subject to legal ramifications, not less. In practical terms, marriage is a lot more about property and inheritance than it is about love and sex.

The jilted bride in this case gave her body as consideration, though historically, people have saved sexual relations until marriage, where consummation was viewed as the final seal of the wedding vow.

Historically in the United States a jilted bride could sue the groom for damages. The only unusual thing about this case is that she moved in with him.

Colonius said...

Great post, gets right into the "what if's" of contracts.

Regarding the Gainesville wedding proposal (Shell), Shell's lawyer did convince a jury of breach of contract. I'm pretty ok with contracts applying to all qualified agreements between parties (not just commercial and financial disputes), but I wasn't sure if there are exceptions for matters of love; which is how I came to find your post.

Nonetheless, in Shell's case I'm surprised her lawyer prevailed, as I would think that the elements-of-contracts provision be that the both parties be in agreement would have required an explicit understanding that Shell was agreeing to give something up in exchange for moving in (and getting married to) her dude. If the facts of the case demonstrated that that happened as part of her accepting his proposal, then I'd accept her case for breach.

Your comparison to the car deal was interesting, as it seemed to emphasize the oral nature of the contract. However, that's normally not relevant -- in general, verbal contracts are binding and enforceable. Well, I did a little homework on that, and I found out that in the case of your car deal, you are off the hook for the Mustang -- but that's an exception . . .
. . .
"... [some] agreements must always be in writing to be valid [including]:

Agreements to sell tangible property, such as a computer or car, worth more than $500"

but wedding proposals, nor prom proposals, are exceptions.

If you welch on a prom invitation at the last minute, knowing your earlier choice had already certainly bought a prom dress, you are obligated to pay for her dress (not to mention a huge awkward impossible apology). You probably aren't going to get sued for it, but if she took you to small claims court, I'd expect that she'd win that one.

Thank you for giving me the sort of example I was looking for, RF. I learned something about car offers, and more about contracts' abstruse applications.

Colonius said...

Should have proof-read.

... elements of contracts provision being that ...

-- and --

but wedding proposals, nor prom proposals, are *not* exceptions.