Heart-Balm Statutes and Askew v. Askew / by Cassandra Hearn

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Broken promises and disappointment are often at the core of many divorces and separations.  The end of a relationship means that at least one person feels deeply hurt and maybe even betrayed by the other person, with whom they expected to share their life and their future.  Some states have what is called a “heart-balm statute.”  A heart-balm statute allows a person to sue the other over a broken promise to marry or broken promises during the marriage that lead to the end of the relationship.  California has enacted Civil Code § 43.4, which provides, “A fraudulent promise to marry or to cohabit after marriage does not give rise to a cause of action for damages.”  In other words, California has specifically disallowed heart-balm actions.  However, in a case called Askew v. Askew, the California court of appeals was faced with the issue of whether one particular case fell into the category of a heart-balm case or if it was truly a fraud case, as the plaintiff alleged.

In that case, the parties were married in 1977, and in 1991, the wife filed for dissolution of the marriage.  Five months after the initial divorce was filed, the husband filed a separate civil suit for fraud against the wife.  The case was based on five premarital “representations” that the wife made to the husband, including that she desired him, loved him only for himself and not his money, would help him in rearing his children from a prior relationship, and would “hold any separate property he transferred to her for the benefit of his minor children.”  After the parties were married, the husband purchased pieces of property using his separate funds, but titled them in his name and his wife’s name in reliance of her pre-marital representations.  She later told him that she did not love him and had not been honest with him.  During the suit, the husband alleged fraud, as he would not have transferred the property to her if she had not lied to him about her feelings for him.  The court of appeals determined that even if a person makes fraudulently false statements about love or desire prior to marriage, these are still part of the “bundle of expectations” for the marriage, and accordingly fall under that umbrella of law, and not that of fraud.  Accordingly, the husband’s suit was a heart-balm action and was not allowed under California law.

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