The Legal Consequences of Leaving Someone at the Altar

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Last week, after we heard that one bride donated her entire reception to the homeless when the groom called off the wedding, it got us thinking. What exactly are the consequences for leaving someone at the alter? We consulted our legal friends at Avvo and here's what they have to say.

This article courtesy of the Avvo Stories blog

Calling off a wedding when you’re having doubts is usually the right thing to do. Leaving the jilted party with the bill is not. Engagements, showers, and weddings are expensive—and canceling them can be awfully pricey, too.

Recouping the nonrefundable expenses

In 2010, Chicago bride Dominique Buttitta spent $30,000 to reserve a banquet hall, $11,000 for flowers and lighting, $10,000 for orchestral music, $7,550 for a photographer, $5,000 for a dress, and $1,700 for wedding favors. Four days before the big event, Buttitta’s fiancé, Vito Salerno, called off the wedding.

Unable to recoup most of the money she had spent, Buttitta filed a $95,000 suit against her runaway groom, citing “breach of promise to marry” and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Included in the $95,000 were other non-refundable purchases, including a bridesmaid luncheon, handmade menus, calligraphy services, and wedding planner fees. Salerno filed his own suit for the return of the $45,000 engagement ring. (The suits were consolidated in January 2011 and presumably settled sometime between then and now.)

Buttitta’s case was backed up by the Breach of Promise Act, enacted within Illinois in 1947. Breach of promise is a common law tort that was abolished in many jurisdictions but still exists in nearly half of the states across the nation. The act supports Buttitta’s case in recovering expenses but limits recovery to actual damages, which makes it difficult to win a claim of emotional distress.

Recouping a lost lifestyle, and the danger of joint accounts

It’s not at all uncommon for an excited bride (or groom)-to-be to quit a job, sell a home, or do something significant in anticipation of a marriage.

In 2008, a Georgia jury ordered Wayne Gibbs to pay $150,000 to his jilted bride, Rosemary Shell. Gibbs called off the engagement just three days before the wedding. Shell didn’t sue her ex-fiancé for wedding expenses—she wanted compensation for turning her life upside-down to be with Gibbs.

During the three-day trial, Shell testified that she quit her $81,000 per year job in Pensacola, Florida, to move to Gainesville with Gibbs. She later moved to Georgia to work at North Georgia College & State University, making just $31,000 a year. She won the case and the $150,000.

“Financially, he destroyed me just a lot of ways and people shouldn’t be allowed to do that,” Shell told WSB-TV. “Hopefully he’ll think twice before he does it to someone else.”

And it’s not always the bride that’s jilted; Steven Silverstein sued his former fiancée, Kendra Platt-Lee, when she changed her mind about tying the knot just months before the wedding. The jilted groom wanted $50,000 from Platt-Lee, claiming that his fiancée withdrew $54,367.87 from their joint bank account on the same day that she dumped him by phone. 

Should you sue when there’s no “I do”?

Waiting too long to cancel the wedding could land you before a judge and jury. When an engagement is broken, a lawsuit involving the cost or ownership of the ring oftentimes follows. Most such cases are decided in small-claims court or with a magistrate. But the closer that broken engagement is to the wedding date itself, the more likely it is that a much larger suit will follow.

“As with most litigation issues, remedies and options for a broken engagement will vary from state to state,” says Linda A. Kerns, an attorney in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. “When a wedding is dramatically canceled at the altar, it might hit the news with indignant statements that the jilted person will sue. In reality, people rarely sue on these grounds and would even more rarely be successful.” Much of it depends on the timing:

  • Canceling an engagement. “Most states consider the engagement ring a conditional gift—conditioned upon the marriage,” explains Kerns. “So if the recipient of the ring does not go through with the marriage, the ring must be returned.”
  • Canceling a wedding before the big day. “Canceling an entire wedding at the last minute would depend on the damages incurred,” says Kerns. “If you paid for the wedding reception, you could sue on the theory that you paid for it on reliance that you would get married. Therefore, you would ask the court to order your once-intended to pay the fees. The claim may or may not be successful.”
  • Canceling on the wedding day. “If the spouse is literally left at the altar and all of the guests are there, they would most likely still go to the reception and eat the food and enjoy the venue,” says Kerns. “So you received something for what you paid, which would weaken your claim against your ex.”

Shattered promises, broken hearts, and busted bank accounts

“Not every promise—even a promise to marry—is a contract,” advises Kerns. “If you are jilted at the altar, rather than spend more money and emotion on a lawsuit, cut your losses and make the best of the situation.”

Litigation requires a lot of time and money. “It is not going to help you emotionally move forward if you are forced to re-live the breakdown of the relationship and the resulting humiliation via the court system,” she adds. “You may very well be throwing good money after bad.”

So, what should you do if your wedding falls through? Kerns recommends returning the engagement ring, returning shower and wedding gifts to their givers, and using or donating items that are nonrefundable. “See if your ex-intended will do the right thing and help mitigate losses,” she suggests. “If not, realize that the cost for canceling a wedding is way cheaper than a divorce—so, in the end, you are ahead.”

Long story short: No matter how broken your heart is, your best option is to let it go, minimize the damage, and move on. But if you still want to sue—or if you’re getting cold feet and thinking about the consequences of making a break for it—you can find a lawyer right here.

Mary Fetzer is a professional freelance writer and editor. She has 10 years of experience writing articles, blog posts, and press releases for online publications and has covered an enormous range of topics ranging from personal finance and international trade to pregnancy and senior living. Mary also writes about legal issues in everyday life on the Avvo Stories blog. Avvo provides free answers from lawyers, client reviews, and detailed profiles for 97 percent of all attorneys in the U.S.; follow them on Twitter and Facebook.

Avvo makes legal easier by providing free answers from lawyers, client reviews, and detailed profiles for 97% of all licensed attorneys in the U.S., so you can find the lawyer who’s right for you. Avvo Advocates write about legal issues in everyday life on the Avvo Stories blog.

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