Legal implications of a broken engagement
Most couples get engaged to marry before they actually get married. At one time, such an agreement to marry was considered a legally binding contract and if the engagement was broken without lawful justification, the person responsible could be sued for damages for breach of promise. The Family Law Act 1981 abolished legal action for breach of promise but it allows for legal action where there is a dispute over property or finances between a couple following a broken engagement or involving a third party.
It should be noted that the rules described here relate to engaged couples; co-habitation in itself does not necessarily mean that they are engaged to marry.
Gifts between an engaged couple
When 2 people who are engaged give gifts (including an engagement ring) to each other, there is a presumption that they are given on the condition that the gifts will be returned (if requested to), should the engagement end. If one of the engaged couple dies, however, it is presumed the gifts the deceased gave were given without any conditions. So, the surviving fiancé(e) can keep the gifts. It is possible to contest either of these presumptions in court if there is evidence to the contrary.
These presumptions only apply to gifts given during the engagement and does not apply to gifts given before or after the engagement.
Gifts from a third party
Where someone gives an engaged couple or one of the couple a wedding gift, there is a presumption (unless there is evidence to the contrary), that it is given to both of them as joint owners. It is also presumed that the gift will be returned (if requested to), should the engagement end and the marriage does not take place for any reason. This includes the death of one of the engaged couple.
A third party can also apply to the courts where one of a couple to a broken engagement received a substantial benefit (not a wedding gift) from the third party as a result of the engagement. For example, if a relative of one of the couple carried out or paid for substantial work to improve a property which the couple intended to use as the family home, the relative can apply to the courts for compensation.
Expenditure on preparations for marriage
Where an engagement has ended and one of the couple has incurred substantial expenses in preparation for the marriage (and hasn't benefited from the expenses), that person may apply to the courts for compensation from their ex-fiancé(e). One example might be expenses incurred in booking the wedding reception, honeymoon and photographer. A third party (for example, a family member or friend) who incurs expenditure on behalf of one of the couple in preparation for the marriage and has not benefited, may also apply to the courts for compensation.
Property of engaged couples
Under Section 44 of the Family Law (Divorce) Act 1996 disputes about property between a couple whose engagement has ended are 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
Legal action must be taken within 3 years of the engagement ending. Such actions are generally taken in the Circuit Court but if very valuable property is involved, a party to the proceedings may ask that it be heard in the High Court. Contact a solicitor who will provide you with advice. Contact information for solicitors' firms throughout Ireland is available from the Law Society.
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.
FLAC has produced a series of basic leaflets on various areas of law which may be useful. These are available from your local Citizens Information Centre and from FLAC or can be downloaded from the FLAC website.