Most couples get engaged before they get married.
If the engagement is broken (called off) and there is a dispute between the couple over property or finances, the Family Law Act 1981 allows them to take legal action against each other. The Act also allows an involved third party (such as a family member) to take legal action.
Before the Family Law Act 1981 came into effect, an engagement was considered a legally binding contract. This meant that, if the engagement was broken without a lawful reason, the person responsible for breaking off the engagement (breaking the contract) could be sued for damages for breach of promise. Since the 1981 Act, you cannot take legal action for breach of promise following a broken engagement.
Gifts between an engaged couple
If an engaged couple exchanges gifts, including an engagement ring, there's a presumption that these gifts will be returned if one of them asks for them back in the event of the engagement ending.
However, if the person that gives the gift dies, it is presumed any gifts were given without any conditions. In this case, the surviving fiancé(e) can keep the gifts.
You can contest either of these presumptions in court if there is evidence to the contrary.
You may be able to challenge either of these presumptions in court by presenting evidence that contradicts them.
Gifts from a third party (such as a family member or friend)
If someone gives an engaged couple (or one of the couple) a wedding gift, it is presumed that the couple are joint owners of the gift. This can be challenged in court if there is evidence to the contrary.
It is also presumed that the gift will be returned (if requested), if the engagement ends and the marriage does not take place for any reason. This includes the death of one of the engaged couple.
If a third party gives a substantial benefit (not a wedding gift) to one of the couple as a result of the engagement, the third party can take legal action if the engagement ends. For example, if a relative carries out or pays for substantial work to improve a property which the couple had planned to use as their family home, the relative can apply to the courts for compensation.
Wedding preparation expenses
If an engagement ends, and one person has spent a lot of money preparing for the wedding (without getting any benefit from it), that person can ask the courts for compensation from their former fiancé(e).
Examples of expenses might include:
- Booking the wedding reception
- Booking the honeymoon
- Hiring a photographer or videographer
If somebody else (for example, a family member or friend) has spent a lot of money preparing for the wedding on behalf of one of the couple (and has not benefited), they may also apply to the courts for compensation.
Property of engaged couples
When a couple (whose engagement has ended) disagrees about how any property is divided, it is treated in the same way as disputes between a married couple who are separating or divorcing.
This only applies to property in which either or both of them had a beneficial interest while they were engaged. It does not apply to property acquired after the engagement ended.
Taking legal action
If your engagement has ended and you want to take legal action, you must do it within 3 years.
If you want to take legal action regarding significant gifts from a third party or expenses related to wedding preparations, you can go to the District Court if the amount of compensation is less than €15,000.
Legal advice and representation
FLAC (Free Legal Advice Centres) is an independent, voluntary organisation that operates a network of legal advice clinics throughout the country. These clinics are confidential, free of charge and open to all. Contact your nearest Citizens Information Centre for information on FLAC services in your area. FLAC also runs an information and referral line during office hours for basic legal information.
To enquire whether you are eligible for legal aid, contact your nearest law centre. Legal aid is generally not free and most recipients must pay a contribution towards costs. You can download an application form for Legal Services (pdf) or you can apply for civil legal aid or advice online. If you cannot afford to pay the contribution, you can apply to the Legal Aid Board to have it waived.
Alternatively, you can discuss your situation with a solicitor who will provide you with advice. Contact information for solicitors throughout Ireland is available from the Law Society.
The Legal Aid service operates out of law centres staffed by qualified solicitors.