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Breaking off an engagement, whatever the reason, is a painful and upsetting event. It marks the end of a personal relationship and the loss of an expected marriage. It is a significant life event which warrants seeking expert legal advice.
The law in Northern Ireland is clear on this – an engagement ring is an absolute gift whether or not the marriage ultimately takes place. This means that the recipient will keep the ring. However, if the proposer can demonstrate that they presented the ring to the recipient strictly on the condition that it must be returned if the engagement is ended, then the proposer will be entitlement to recover the ring. This is true even if it is the proposer who ultimately ends the engagement. The law is somewhat less clear as to the timing of this condition being communicated to the recipient, but before or shortly after the proposal would be the reasonable expectation. A rather unromantic conversation to have with your fiancé to-be!
The relevant law is Article 17 of The Family Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Northern Ireland) Order 1984. This law is not limited to the gifting of an engagement ring, but all forms of property gifted by one party of an engagement to the other. This follows on from Article 15, which states that an engagement does not amount to a contract.
The engagement ring can be a very emotive issue upon the breakdown of the relationship. Often it is a family heirloom or was picked out by the couple together or by one partner for their fiancé to-be. The engagement ring is typically a rather expensive purchase, costing on average £1850 in the UK in 2020, and often purchased using a credit card, loan, or finance arrangement with the jewellers. When the engagement is ended, the monthly repayments can continue for years afterwards and this can lead to anger and frustration preventing resolution of other issues.
Your ability to secure refunds will depend on the individual contracts you have entered into with your various suppliers, such as the venue, caterers, photographers, musicians, celebrant etc.
Event suppliers tend to have convoluted cancellation policies and most holding deposits are clearly stated as being non-refundable. If one fiancé, or their family, has funded the majority of the wedding deposits, then it may be very difficult for them to secure a refund, particularly if the other fiancé is failing to co-operate. Suppliers may seek to take advantage of the fact that the couple are no longer presenting as a united front. A plea for compassion and understanding and critically, notifying the supplier of the event at the earliest opportunity, may boost your prospects of securing a refund.
Engaged couples sometimes receive a generous contribution from parents or grandparents towards the expected cost of their wedding day.
Unless there is a condition stated in writing or other clear evidence to the contrary, these monetary contributions would be considered an absolute gift to the couple and it would be difficult to secure reimbursement of that gift of money. If the money has not yet been transferred to the wedding suppliers for payment of deposits and invoices, but is still sitting in one fiancé’s bank account, then refunding that money for relatives may be less difficult.
It is unlikely that a former fiancé could successfully pursue a claim in these circumstances. The former fiancé would need to demonstrate that they have acquired a beneficial interest in the property due to a substantial financial contribution that cannot be disregarded.
Evidence of a substantial financial contribution by a former fiancé, whose name is not on the title deeds for the property, may unlock the legal protection afforded by Article 16 of The Family Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Northern Ireland) Order 1984. However, the financial contribution by the former fiancé must have been so substantial as to acquire a beneficial interest in the property, and the timeframe for any claim is limited to three years from the engagement being ended.
It is important to remember that there is no such thing as a common law marriage. It follows that the legal protections afforded to married couples are denied to unmarried and engaged couples. Former fiancés are reliant on property law principles to pursue claims against property owned solely by the other fiancé.
There are three common ways that engaged couples own property – in one fiancé’s sole name or in their joint names (either as joint tenants or as tenants in common). Any form of joint ownership would automatically confer an entitlement in the property to both fiancés.
This is a frequent concern for bereaved fiancés or partners, more so now than ever before.
The way forward will depend on whether or not the deceased fiancé had made a Will, and also whether or not you had a child together.
The surviving fiancé may be able to secure financial assistance from the deceased’s estate, if certain criteria is met under a law called the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) (Northern Ireland) Order 1979.
Your first step should always be to obtain independent legal advice, even if mediation is contemplated.
Mediation via a reputable and qualified mediation service can be a highly effective forum for helping couples discuss their issues and achieving an amicable agreement.
Solicitors are trained and skilled in negotiating and resolving disputes. Discussions between Solicitors can prove an effective method of resolving the issues arising if mediation is not possible or has been unsuccessful.
In some circumstances Court proceedings may be necessary to resolve matters.
If you plan to start living together with your partner or have just started living together, then you may wish to consider entering into a Cohabitation Agreement.
All engaged couples should consider entering into a Prenuptial Agreement before getting married. This is similar in scope and content to a Cohabitation Agreement but made in contemplation of marriage.
Finally, in the event of an engagement being ended, it would be prudent to review any Wills made during the relationship.
At Cleaver Fulton Rankin, we offer unparalleled legal advice and representation to our clients in personal legal matters, including the protection of wealth and resolving asset disputes arising from the breakdown of marriage and relationships. Find out more about our services on our Family & Matrimonial webpage.
This article has been produced for general information purposes and further advice should be sought from a professional advisor.