“Will you marry me?” are no doubt words uttered by many on significant “romantic” days like Valentines’ Day or Christmas 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?
It’s tricky judging how many engagements are broken off (although doubtless we probably all know one couple whose big day was called off). The UK Wedding Taskforce has estimated that 278,000 engaged couples were planning to marry from 2021 onwards. And the ONS recently released its Marriage in England and Wales 2020 report which told us that there were 85,770 marriages in 2020, a significant 60% drop from the previous year but, of course, many weddings had to be postponed in 2020 thanks to the pandemic.
Breaking off an engagement, whatever the circumstances, can be very stressful. There may be countless reasons why a couple separate but one thing is certain – there are a lot of questions in the couple’s minds about what will happen next. Below we look at some of the most common legal questions our team get asked.
Who keeps the ring?
Probably the most asked question. It’s the first thing people think of, and, of course, an engagement ring is a hugely emotive item. It’s highly likely to have been chosen by the couple together or it may even be a family heirloom. The financial cost invested in an engagement ring is not insignificant either: tradition says that the ring should cost three times the giver’s monthly salary (although, interestingly, this is a tradition which only started in the 1930s thanks to DeBeers, the diamond mining and jewellery company).
Whether you’re lucky enough to have a ring worthy of Elizabeth Taylor (who knew a thing or two about engagements – she had ten and was married eight times – the engagement ring Richard Burton gave her to in 1963 was sold at auction 50 years later for $8.8million) or something more modest, at least the law is clear. Under the Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1970, an engagement ring is presumed to be an absolute gift whether or not the marriage takes place. This means the recipient keeps the ring unless the giver can show that they gave the ring on condition that it would be returned if the engagement was called off.
Earlier this year, the break-up of Maya Jamal and Ben Simmons hit the headlines because he sent a legal letter demanding the return of the $1million engagement ring he had given her. In the end it looks like she simply returned the ring but for those embroiled in these disagreements, it all comes down to a question of fact – was there a conversation about what would happen if the marriage didn’t take place or not? Was there an agreement and was it put into writing?
On a very practical level, many rings are purchased on credit and, long after the engagement has broken down, the buyer can still be paying off the debt. This situation can give rise to some very disgruntled disputes. So, the lesson is, if there is an expensive or sentimental ring involved, agree at the outset what will happen to it and put that agreement into writing.
What happens to the gifts from friends and family?
If there’s an engagement party, it’s very likely the couple will have received gifts from friends and family. Unlike the ring, the presumption here is that a gift should be returned if the giver asks for it back.
And whilst it’s fairly unlikely that someone is going to ask for their set of crystal cut champagne glasses to be returned, significant cash gifts are another story. With the Bank of Mum and Dad (and the Bank of Grandma and Grandad) helping out more and more, a cash gift towards a deposit for a first home is common. The lesson here is that if you are planning to gift a sizeable wad of cash to the happy couple, speak to a specialist family lawyer who can advise you on the best way to protect your money.
We’ve already spent a fortune on the wedding. Can we get our money back?
Planning and organising a wedding can be anything like two years in the making and vast sums can be spent. Venues are booked years in advance; caterers, photographers and even the honeymoon are paid for months before the actual date. 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 from them to recover any money from their ex.
As for being able to claim against individual suppliers, each supplier will have a slightly different cancellation policy so it's important to look through your contracts to see where you stand. Generally, deposits are non-refundable, but there may be room for flexibility. There is no substitute for speaking with each individual supplier as soon as you can, explaining what has happened and seeing what they are able to accommodate.
What will happen to the house we’ve bought together?
The legal protection afforded to married couples is denied to unmarried couples and that includes engaged couples. The most important thing an unmarried couple needs to be aware of is that there is no such thing as a common law marriage, no matter whether you’ve been together six months or sixty years. There is no ability to claim maintenance or a share of your ex’s pension and assets cannot be redistributed to ensure everyone walks away with a “fair” settlement unlike a divorce.
So, if your relationship is not recognised by the law, what happens? Broadly, any claims can only centre on property. But unlike the rules that apply to divorcing couples, there is no ability for the court to share or redistribute “fairly”. Instead, unmarried couples have to rely on strict property law principles which can result in some harsh consequences for the financially weaker partner.
How you own a property is an important question. And this is where things can get very complicated very quickly. Legally, there are typically two tiers of property ownership:
- Legal ownership - the legal owner will be named on the Land Registry title for the property.
- Beneficial owners - the names of the beneficial owners will not necessarily appear on the Land Registry title but they have the right to share the proceeds of sale and to occupy the property.
In practice, couples usually own their home in one of these three ways:
This is where you and your partner are named on the legal title and own the whole of the beneficial interest jointly. You and your partner have equal rights to stay in the property and, if there’s a sale, you will split the sale proceeds equally. When one of you dies, the other automatically inherits their share of the property.
Tenants in common
This is where you and your partner are named on the legal title but own separate shares in the beneficial interest. If there’s no express agreement about what those shares are, then the starting point is that you own 50% each. Usually couples own property as tenants in common to specify that they own more/less than 50%, or to ensure that they can each pass their share of the property under their will, rather than it going to the other partner automatically on death.
Only one partner’s name appears on the legal title and they’re the legal owner. If you’re the sole owner you have a right to stay in the home. However, your partner may be able to claim a beneficial interest in it.
If you don't have children and your ex-partner is the sole owner of the home you live in, the only way you may be able to claim long-term rights to the property is if you’re able to show you have a “beneficial interest” in it. This is a way of getting a court to formally recognise contributions you have made towards the property or even that there was an agreement between you that you would both share in the property. In some cases, the courts can even infer an agreement from how you have dealt with things during the relationship. If you’re able to prove you have a beneficial interest in the home, you may be able to get the right to live in the home, prevent your ex-partner from living there or get a share of the proceeds if the property is sold. However, these disputes can be difficult to prove either way and specialist legal advice from a cohabitation lawyer is essential.
Engaged couples may not enjoy the same protections as married couples but they do have some extra protections compared to non-engaged couples. This is really important as this if often overlooked, it can be very helpful if the property is owned by just one of you but you do have to act fast if you want to use the protection.
The Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1970 and the Matrimonial Proceedings And Property Act 1970 entitle an engaged (or formerly engaged) person to claim a beneficial interest in a property owned by their ex. However certain circumstances must apply:
- the non-owner must have made contributions to improve the property in money or money’s worth (so this could be you paid a builder or undertook the work yourself);
- the improvements must be of a “substantial nature”. As you can imagine, this gives rise to a lot of arguments. What is important is that you have evidence of what you spent and/or accurate records of the time spent doing the work yourself. Expert valuation evidence on any increase in value to the property thanks to your work may also be needed; and
- any claim must be brought within three years of the engagement ending.
Prevention is undoubtedly better than cure. And even with the extra protections, it is sensible for engaged couples living together or buying a property together to put a cohabitation agreement in place. This is a legal document which sets out who gets what in the event of a separation. As everything is in writing, there's less chance of uncertainty or disagreements further down the line.
The team of family lawyers at Mills & Reeve are experienced in dealing with all sorts of disputes following the end of an engagement, as well as different ways to protect wealth or avoid disagreements in the future. If you need any advice, please contact us and we’ll be happy to help.