It used to be the case in Ireland that getting engaged to somebody was akin to entering into a legally binding contract. Nowadays, though you may be seen as having a moral obligation to that person, you no longer have a legal obligation. However, as will be discussed, this does not mean that getting engaged is without legal consequence.
Breach of promise
Where once a broken engagement was actionable as a “breach of promise”, this legal avenue was abolished by section 2 of the Family Law Act 1981, and affirmed in the 1996 case of Ennis v. Butterly, in which the plaintiff failed in her suit against the defendant for his breach of a promise to marry her.
Agreements to cohabit
Further, the plaintiff’s claim for breach of agreement to cohabit also failed, with the High Court stating that such agreements are unenforceable at common law, as “to permit an express cohabitation contract (such as is pleaded here) to be enforced would give it a similar status in law as a marriage.”
While an engagement in and of itself is not an enforceable contract, legal implications may arise when assets are involved.
If a dispute arises in the wake of a broken engagement, any property owned by them will be treated as if the parties were married (as per section 5 of the Family Law Act 1981, and section 44 of the Family Law (Divorce) Act 1996). This remains the case even when only one of the parties has a beneficial interest in a property — that is, the parties do not necessarily have to have bought the property together.
Under section 3 of the Family Law Act 1981, any wedding gift given to the engaged couple (either to both or to either one) has the effect of making them joint owners. On termination of the engagement, the gift must be returned.
The Act goes even further by stating in sections 6 and 7 that, where a person has spent a significant sum of money on foot of the engagement, other than on a wedding gift, that person can apply to the courts for an Order to be made (usually, compensation). An example might be where one of the parties or, indeed, their parents had paid non-refundable deposits in respect of the wedding.
There is a legal presumption that gifts between engaged couples, including engagement rings, are conditional. In the event of the termination of the engagement, the ring must be returned on request. (If one of the parties dies, the gift is considered to be unconditional.)
As with all legal presumptions, this can be rebutted by evidence to show that the gift was unconditional (though, in practice, this can be difficult to prove).
Under section 9 of the Act, anyone who wishes to bring a claim in respect of any of the above has three years from the date of the termination of the engagement to do so.
In short, while you certainly will not be forced to marry someone just because you are engaged to that person, there are still legal implications to getting down on bended knee. Although not on the same scale as divorce, it should be obvious from the above that some assets could still be at risk.