Breach of promise?
Today an engagement is not a precondition of a marriage although couples often do make a public, formal announcement of their engagement. At one time, an engagement was considered a binding legal contract. If you broke off an engagement, you could be sued by your ex-fiance for ‘breach of promise’ to marry. Today this is no longer so. Thus whatever heartache their decision to part entails, people who are engaged are absolutely free to change their minds if they decide not to marry after all. They need not fear a court action!
You lived abroad and became engaged to your fiance in a foreign country where engagement is regarded as a binding legal agreement. You both now live in England. After a time, you decide to break off the engagement. Your ex-fiance threatens to sue you. What is your position? An agreement to marry is not legally enforceable in the English courts wherever the engagement took place. It might still be actionable abroad however.
Problems if an engagement falls through
Although there is no action for breach of promise, legal disputes do arise between an engaged couples who decide to part. These disputes usually concern property and gifts.
The engagement ring
Certain clear rules of law govern the question of the return of an engagement ring. It is regarded as an outright gift unless it can be shown to be a family heirloom. Your fiance has given you a very expensive engagement ring but the engagement has since been broken off by mutual agreement. Are you under a legal obligation to return the ring? The answer is that an engagement ring is presumed to be an absolute gift so that there is no obligation to return it. The same rule applies to birthday or Christmas gifts which your fiance may have given to you or you to him. Your fiance has given you a very valuable engagement ring which is a family heirloom, having once belonged to his great-grandmother the engagement is broken off by mutual agreement. Are you under a legal obligation to return the ring? Again the presumption is that an engagement ring is intended to be an outright gift. However, where your fiance can show as in this case that the ring is intended to remain in his family; you may be obliged by law to return it.
Weddings today can be very expensive and involve an outlay of thousands of pounds. What is the position if the wedding is cancelled? In addition, the couple may have gone to the trouble and expense of putting a down-payment on a flat or house. What happens to their deposit if they decide to call the whole thing off? In each case, the question will turn on the contract into which the parties have entered. You have each put down money on the asking price of a flat where you were intending to live after your marriage. A great deal of expense has been incurred for your forthcoming wedding. The bride’s father has hired the hall and paid a deposit to the caterers and the band; the groom’s family has paid for a honeymoon in the West Indies. Family and friends have already sent gifts. The wedding is called off and you blame each other what is the position?