Valentines’ Day – traditionally the day for proposals to marry and when couples become engaged. In previous articles we have looked at what happens if a marriage breaks down, where each spouse has the right to make a claim against the other in respect of all assets and belongings they own jointly or separately.

But what happens if a couple become engaged and sadly the marriage does not take place? The couple have already started to prepare for their romantic fairytale wedding; they have an engagement party at which they receive lots of gifts from family and friends; they invest in a new home in which to spend their life together, and start to accumulate possessions. What happens to any property they share and the cash, investments, jewellery, and cars?

Imagine the following: after a whirlwind romance in the French Riviera, Bruno, a Marseille fisherman, gives up his job and moves to England to live with Violet, a multi-millionairess. They become engaged.  Bruno gives Violet his great-grandmother’s engagement ring worth £10k and Violet buys him a car. She also buys an apartment in her sole name for them both to live in. Bruno carries out £20k worth of improvements to the property. He spends £65k from the sale of his fishing boat on mortgage payments, utility bills and an expensive social diary to keep his beloved happy. At no time do Violet or Bruno discuss their finances or what should happen if their relationship should fail. Violet then catches Bruno with another woman and throws him out of their apartment. Their relationship is over.

As a former cohabitant and fiancé, Bruno may be able to claim an interest in the property by virtue of his improvements to the property and contributions to the mortgage, but what else? What happens to the ring? The law says that an engagement ring is presumed to be an absolute gift, unless the parties agreed it would be returned if the engagement ended. Bruno and Violet never discussed finances but Bruno might succeed in showing the court that because it was an heirloom, there was an understanding that Violet would return it on any break-up.

It is commonly thought there is a clear distinction between the rights of a spouse and those of a cohabitant, in that the former has clear statutory rights and the latter may have none. However it must be remembered that where a couple were engaged to be married, and provided they bring a claim within 3 years of the broken engagement, under some little known legislation dating back to 1882, the court  can declare ownership of property and personal possessions such as cars, jewellery and order or postpone a sale.

Make sure you get advice on how to survive a broken engagement.