Breach of a promise to marry
A mere breach of a promise to marry is not an actionable wrong as long as it is not of such extent as would palpably and unjustifiably contradict good customs.
In any case, the party seeking to recover damages must have acted in good faith.
I was still a freshman at the UP College of Law when I first read the 1964 case of Wassmer v. Velez (120 Phil 1440 ) wherein the Supreme Court allowed the recovery of damages as a result of a cancelled marriage.
Preparations for the wedding had already been made — a marriage license had been secured; wedding invitations printed and distributed; dresses for the bride, maid of honor, and flower girl purchased; bridal showers given and gifts received; the matrimonial bed bought, complete with accessories — only to have the wedding cancelled just two days before its intended date.
The Supreme Court ruled that, while a breach of promise to marry was not actionable, walking out of a wedding two days prior, after all had been prepared, was quite different.
The defendant’s act was deemed “palpably and unjustifiably contrary to good customs,” for which the award of damages was proper.
Indeed, “the extent to which acts not contrary to law may be perpetrated with impunity is not limitless,” as these acts are still subject to the human relations provisions of the New Civil Code.
However, the Supreme Court stressed in the recent case of Jhonna Guevarra vs Jan Banach, (G.R. No. 214016 November 24, 2021) that the party seeking to recover damages must have acted in good faith.
Banach, a German, alleged that Guevarra had repeatedly expressed her love and willingness to marry him so that he would send her money, only to break up with him after he had done so.
Banach went to court seeking the return of the P500,000 that he gave to Guevarra for their supposed conjugal home.
He claimed that these acts amounted to fraud, or at the very least unjust enrichment.
On the other hand, Guevarra called off the engagement after she had discovered Banach’s actions were tainted with fraud and deceit; he did not have the purest intentions in marrying her.
He lied about his marital status as he told her that he was a divorced man even if he was still married to his third wife.
Banach even hid his true name from Guevarra.
Finding out that one’s betrothed is still married to another person, and that he is not who he say he is, are reasons enough to justify the wedding’s cancellation.
In granting the petition where the award of actual damages worth P500,000 was deleted, my former UP Law professor and SC Associate Justice Marvic Leonen said that “Litigation to the sorrows caused by a broken heart and a broken promise must be discouraged.”
The unjust enrichment principle only applies if the property is acquired without legal grounds.
Banach gave Guevarra P500,000 as a gift to help her and her family with their possible eviction from their home. The money being a gift, the Court said that Guevarra cannot be compelled to return the P500,000 given to her.
Justice Leonen further said that an individual has the autonomy to choose whom to marry, or whether to marry at all. They must be free to make that choice without any fear of legal retribution or liability.
The decision on whether to marry is one that should be freely chosen, without the pressures of a possible civil suit should a person realize that their intended partner is not right for them.
“We recognize instances when the breach of one’s commitment in an intimate relationship is a consequence of their realization that marriage may not be the wisest path they could take given their circumstances,” Leonen said.
“Choosing a person to marry is intimately connected to a person’s autonomy. Any State interest in the institution of marriage must not lead to an unjustified intrusion into one’s individual autonomy and human dignity. It must only be done when public interest is imperiled. It is not within the courts’ competence to reach too far into intimate relations. Courts, through litigation, should not dictate on or even pressure a person into accepting a life of marriage with a person they reject. Courts must, as much as possible, refrain from meddling in these personal affairs,” Leonen added.
(Peyups is the moniker of University of the Philippines. Atty. Dennis R. Gorecho heads the seafarers’ division of the Sapalo Velez Bundang Bulilan law offices. For comments, e-mail [email protected], or call 0917-5025808 or 0908-8665786.)
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