The Rules of Engagement – what happens when an engagement is broken off

“Will you marry me?” were no doubt words uttered by many on Valentines’ Day.  In the rush to choose a dress and arrange a venue, how many couples have considered what might happen if they don’t actually make it down the aisle?  

Let’s address the ring first. It is, of course, a hugely emotive item, perhaps having been chosen by the couple together or it may be a family heirloom. The financial cost invested in an engagement ring is not insignificant either: for traditionalists, the ring should cost three times their monthly salary! Thankfully, the law is clear.  The bride who was-to-be gets to keep the ring unless the husband who was-to-be can show he gave the ring on condition that it be returned to him if the engagement was called off.  

If there’s been an engagement party and the couple have received gifts from friends and family, there is a presumption that the gifts should be returned if the giver asks for them back.  And whilst someone might not be concerned to have a trinket or kitchen appliance returned to them, a relative who has given the couple a generous cash gift to fund a home is less likely to be so laid-back.  

Money may already have been spent on the wedding itself.  The venue and caterers may be booked and paid for, together with the photographer, band and even the honeymoon.  If only one of the couple (or their family) has footed the bill then, unless there is a clear agreement about how the costs were to be split, it may be very difficult to recover any money from the other.  

Finally, it is not uncommon for arguments to arise over the house the couple were living in. Engaged couples enjoy somewhat of a special legal status. Where only one of the couple owns the house and the other is just living in it, then the law says the couple are to be treated as if they were married when deciding if the non-owner has an interest in the property.  The court is also obliged to investigate their respective contributions to the property.  This may be very relevant if the non-owner has, for example, spent their own money on renovating or improving the property.  However, this special status only lasts for the three years after the end of the engagement.  

The family team at Mills & Reeve are experienced in dealing with all sorts of disputes following the end of an engagement.  If you need advice, please contact us. 

Kris Arpon