23rd Oct 2017

‘Calling it off’ – Broken engagements and who keeps what

In this blog, Family Law in Partnership associate Carla Ditz examines some of the typical legal and practical problems that arise when an engagement comes to an end.

For most couples, the words ‘Will you marry me’ result in both parties walking down the aisle. For others, that big day may never come as one party, or indeed both parties decide to ‘call it off’. A stream of emotions may follow. Shock, anger, guilt, sadness, relief to name but a few. Once tensions have cooled, the parties will need to consider how to deconstruct the planned nuptials. This will include matters on a practical level such as informing the guests, cancelling the wedding venue, cancelling the honeymoon and returning wedding gifts but also disentangling the financial ties. This may relate to closing joint accounts and splitting jointly held property or deciding if one party will reimburse the other for wedding costs incurred. Where disputes arise as to shares of ownership or right in relation to property, the parties may find themselves instructing solicitors to pursue a claim to determine the nature and extent of ownership of that property.

The wedding ‘contract’?

Once upon a time, breaking off an engagement was considered a breach of contract and the offended party could make a claim for “breach of promise”. Whilst this is no longer the case, couples may still find they become embroiled in arguments regarding gifts which have exchanged hands, the cost of wedding plans which are already in motion and of course, who should keep the engagement ring. So how does it get resolved?

The engagement ring and other gifts made between the parties

The engagement ring is a hugely emotive item. The couple may have chosen it together or the groom may have spent endless days searching for the ‘perfect ring’. The ring may have even been a family heirloom which carries yet more significance. This is not to mention the financial cost that may been invested into such an item. For the traditionalists, a sum equating 3 times their monthly salary represents the magic number. So where do the parties stand when the relationship ends?

Fortunately, the law is clear on who gets to keep the engagement ring. It, along with other similar questions is ALL about intention:  was this an outright gift or is there evidence (which includes what was said or implied by behaviours) that indicates that it was conditional on an event (the marriage)?  The courts have, in the decisions handed down over the years, created default positions:

For example, whether the parties marry or not, the giving of the engagement ring is presumed to be an absolute gift. So the recipient is entitled to keep it, unless the person giving the ring can make a case, for example that the ring was a family heirloom and the recipient knew this – the implication being that it would be passed down and kept within the family. In this situation, it is easier to succeed with a case that the ring  should be returned if the wedding is called off.

Other pre-wedding gifts between the parties will be approached in the same way.

Engagement gifts from third parties

Where gifts have been given to the engaged couple by family and friends, there is a presumption that the gift is given to the couple jointly (unless there is evidence to prove otherwise). Where the engagement comes to an end and the marriage no longer takes place, there is, further, a presumption that the gifts will be returned if asked (although in reality and morally, the parties will in all likelihood feel that the gifts should be returned.). Whilst a third party may not be too concerned about the return of a kitchen blender, they may well take issue if that they had provided the couple with the funds to undertake substantial property works to a home in which the couple were to live once married. In such a situation, that third party may find they have a remedy through the courts for compensation.

Costs of the wedding

In many cases, significant sums will have been incurred in organising the wedding. The wedding venue, the catering, the photographer, the band, the honeymoon…the list goes on. Where the wedding doesn’t go ahead, the paying party may struggle to recover the money spent, unless they can show for example:

  • a broad intention that the other party was going to reimburse them; or
  • the other party was going to make other contributions so as to share the costs equally.

Where one party has elected to pick up all the costs themselves and the other party simply pulls the plug, then:

  • there is no right to sue for compensation for the losses arising, because the court says that this is not a contract that creates legal rights;
  • there is no compensation for the additional costs incurred in sorting matters out.

This is why (alongside the myriad of other things that need attention), you may want a clear paper (email) trail setting out the agreed arrangements:

  • Is it my name on all of these contracts? Or both of our names?
  • Is the fundamental intention that there will at some stage be a reckoning such that we meet the costs in proportions x:y?

Without such an agreement, you take the risk of picking up the tab as well as managing the potential devastation of a broken engagement. The same applies where it is, for example, the bride’s family who have paid for various expenses towards the wedding and who are now seeking a contribution from the groom.

Loss of financial security and ownership of property

It is not uncommon for disputes to arise in relation to property in which the parties live, for example. In law, engaged couples enjoy somewhat of a special status when it comes to determining rights in property, specifically in deciding whether one party has acquired a ‘beneficial interest’ in property (that is to say, an interest in the property which they may not actually own themselves but which their fiancé(e) may in fact own). For these purposes, the law states that they may be treated as if they were a married couple and determine their interests accordingly. Such interests can arise where one party may have contributed significant sums towards the improvement a property but which they do not themselves own.

Where one party to the engagement pre-deceases the other, the surviving party (as a cohabitant who lived together ‘as husband and wife’) will be treated as a dependent of the deceased (where appropriate) and may therefore entitled to make a claim from the deceased’s estate for financial provision. Eligibility will of course depend on the facts of the particular situation but the parties must have lived together for a minimum of 2 years before the death of the individual in order to make a claim. As an example, an order may be made for ‘periodical payments’ (regular payments) for such term as may be specified in the court order. In any event, these payments will come to an end if the recipient eventually gets married.

In summary

Item When the engagement is called off…
The engagement ring The engagement ring is usually considered an absolute gift unless the person who gave the ring can show that there is a good reason for it to be returned ie) if it was a family heirloom

Wedding presentsGenerally, these gifts will be returned.Costs of the weddingThe paying party may be able to recover sums already handed over for the wedding itselfLoss of financial security / property ownershipWhere property is concerned, a party may have acquired an interest in the property by reason of any contributions (financial or otherwise) they may have made.

Where one party pre-deceases the other whilst the parties are engaged, the surviving party may be treated as a dependent of the deceased and may make a claim out of the deceased’s estate for financial provision, depending on the circumstances.

How to deal with disputes after an engagement is called off

Calling off an engagement is by no means an easy decision to make and for most, the experience will be hugely stressful and traumatic. For others, the feeling may be mutual and an amicable split is possible. Whatever the reason for the break-up, major wedding plans may already be in place and in 99% of cases, an engagement ring will have been given and possibly other gifts for the engagement. Financial aspects of a called-off engagement can be sensibly agreed between the parties, often with the help of mediation. For those who are unable to reach an agreement, the courts may indeed be able to assist but should of course be the last resort and arbitration could be proposed as a sensible alternative. Finally, as unromantic as it may be, where engaged parties own significant assets together or where gifts have exchanged hands, they may consider it sensible to enter into a pre-nuptial agreement which makes provision for what will happen to such gifts and property as well as wedding expenses should the wedding not go ahead.

For more information, please contact us on 020 7420 5000 or hello@flip.co.uk . Please also see our website for more details regarding our mediation practice and arbitration practice.