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What happens when you break your promise to marry?

The scenarios given in this article are not judgement calls on people who behave in similar ways; they are examples of what courts have found in other cases and described as such.

What happens when you break your promise to marry?

It is legally possible, for a woman or a man to sue a man or woman for breaking their promise to marry. The law defines a promise as an undertaking to do something or to perform an act in the near future.

In the old days, the person who broke the promise could be forced to fulfil the promise to marry. In today’s more “modern” times, the jilted person can sue for damages for breach of promise to marry if the promise is broken off without just cause or good reason. The person who sues only has to prove that there was a promise to marry.

Damages can be given for the actual breaking of the promise and also for the manner in which the promise was broken. So, do be careful with what you say and how you behave around the man or woman you are in a relationship with when you decide you do not want them in your life anymore because the law can hold you to account for it.

What compensation can one get for breach of promise to marry?

A person who has been jilted can ask a court for compensation for prospective loss to be suffered as a result of the breach. For example they can sue for benefits that they could have enjoyed in the future i.e. the material or financial position they would have enjoyed had they been married. So if a woman had anticipated becoming a millionaire’s wife, and he dumps her, she can sue him for suddenly returning her to earning $1000 per month.

Some people claim back the material or financial positions that they could have enjoyed if no promise of marriage had been made. For example if a man promised to marry a woman and asked her to turn down a job offer , if he suddenly jilts her, she can claim damages for what she would have earned in her new job had he not prevented her from taking it because they were about to get married. Also,if, after a woman promises to marry a man, and he decides to go to the gym to increase his stamina for the wedding night, if she breaks up with him, he can claim damages for all the gym subscriptions he had to pay.

A person who has been jilted can also sue for the embarrassment, hurt and injured feelings. The following scenarios are good examples of cases where you can successfully sue for embarrassment.

 Scenario 1

Ranga promises to marry Kiri and they prepare for the wedding. On the wedding day, the Priest asks Ranga whether he will take Kiri as his lawfully wedded wife. In front of guests, Ranga says ” No I have changed my mind ” and walks off.

Scenario 2

Keitumetsi promises to marry Refilwe and they arrange a pre-wedding party. On the day of the party Keitumetsi is nowhere to be seen leaving a red faced Refilwe to explain to the guests what has happened. Later, Keitumetsi tells Refilwe she changed her mind.

Scenario 3

Duduzile promises to marry Botswang but then goes on to place an advert in the Herald saying that she is not going to marry Botswang. Botswang wakes up to telephone calls from friends and relatives asking him what happened.

To get the highest amount of damages for breach of promise to marry, a person needs to prove that they were jilted in a hurtful manner and that getting jilted injured their feelings. The Court will then assess whether a reasonable person would say the manner in which the Complainant was jilted ruined their reputation in the eyes of ordinary people.

Are there circumstances when the claim can be challenged?

Yes. The law cannot force people who do not love each other to love each other so there are instances when a person being sued can be considered to have had the right to end the relationship.   Examples include:

  • When the person who breaks the promise to marry discovers that the other person has a mental illness;
  • When the person who breaks the promise to marry does so out of fear e.g. if they receive death threats from the other person or the other person threatens to commit suicide;
  • When the person who breaks the promise decides that they made a mistake, and that they may have made the promise but really did not want to;
  • When the person who made the promise claims that she or he made the promise while drunk or otherwise intoxicated and therefore did not exercise their free will;
  • If the person who breaks the promise believes that a happy marriage will not be possible.
  • The following are examples of situations where the law says such a reason would be accepted:

Change of religion

Rudo promises to marry Dzikamai. When they get engaged they are both Catholics then 6 months prior to the wedding Dzikamai converts to Buddhism. 

Disgraceful or immoral and intolerable behaviour by one party

Kilebokile is a pastor. Her boyfriend Phumza, whom she promised to marry goes for a party, gets really drunk and sleeps with a girl at the party. The next day, the sex tape of the incident circulates on social media and Kilebokile calls off the wedding by placing an advert in the Herald.

Incapacity to have children

Chido and Mpho are engaged and have been living together for 2 years, planning to get married in the third year. They agreed to have a baby and have been trying for over a year. They go to see some specialists and are told that Mpho has low sperm count and is unlikely to have any children. Chido decides to end the relationship.

Existence of a STI

Tanatswa and Botho are engaged. They decide to go and get tested for HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases before they have sex. The doctor comes back with the unexpected news that Tanatswa has syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease. Given this news, Botho decides that he cannot marry her.

Incompatibility or dislike of each other

Takura and Chido have been dating for 6 years. However, over time their relationship has deteriorated. They fight all the time. They seem to argue over the simplest things. They cannot agree on anything. Finally fed up, Chido calls off the wedding.


If the person suing for breach of promise to marry knows that the one they are suing is already married, the courts will dismiss the case because the claim will be considered to be against public morals (contra bonos mores). Even if the one suing was not aware that the other person was married, they cannot sue for breach of promise to marry because the promise they received was fraudulent and therefore not legal.

Bottom line: This law seems to be saying; as much as possible, avoid making promises that you know you will not be able to keep!




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