Breakdown of an engagement – what are a party’s legal rights?

Following a breakdown of an engagement, a party is not afforded the same protections under financial remedy principles, as a formerly married couple. This article explores the legal protections available to a party who was formally engaged, with the courts relying primarily on the law of trusts and property, with some limited statutory protection by way of Matrimonial Proceedings and Property Act 1970 and Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1970. The article further questions whether this area of law is in need of an update?


“In this country a husband has a legal obligation to support his wife even if they are living apart. A man has no legal obligation to support his mistress even if they are living together.” In Windeler V Whitehall – [1990] 2 FLR 505J Millet clearly sets out the delineation between married and unmarried couples, remarking on the fact that there is no concept of “Palimony” in this country, namely compensation paid by one member of an unmarried couple to the other after separation. This concept exists in California and other US jurisdictions as a means of financially protecting the lower earning party of the relationship, especially in cases of long-term engagements.

In this country however, there is no specific provision for ‘engaged couples’, and there are no reported cases which state that the concept of engagement generates a sharing entitlement between the couple. Instead an aggrieved party will likely rely on the rules of trusts to gain monetary compensation following the breakdown of an engagement.

If a previously engaged couple cohabited, any likely claim for property interest will be dealt with through the ordinary position of a TOLATA 1997 claim. However, a formerly engaged party may further claim a share, or an enhanced share, based upon their substantial contributions pursuant to Matrimonial Proceedings and Property Act 1970, s37. This will occur where there has been:

  • substantial contributions in money;
  • contributions to the improvement of real/ personal property;
  • the Claimant can be seen to have enlarged both parties’ shares;
  • however, this claim would be subject to any agreement advanced by the other party to the contrary, either express or implied.

Further, the Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1970, s2(2) affirms the application of Married Women’s Property Act 1882, s17 to previously engaged couples, providing declaratory relief for ownership of property and personal possessions (such as cars, jewellery etc). Claims under this act are subject to a 3-year time limit, running from the termination of the agreement to marry.

The courts may also order sale of the property under the 1882 Act, but in reality, this would more easily be dealt with the court as an s14 TOLATA claim.

With regards to the returning of engagement rings, the law is pursuant to Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1970 s3(2) in that it “shall be presumed to be an absolute gift; this presumption may be rebutted by proving that the ring was given on the condition, express or implied, that it should be returned’. Of course, in absence of clear words, writing or actions to suggest the giving of the ring was conditional this will be a difficult argument to advance by the seeking party.


Whilst there is some legislative protection following a breakdown of an engagement, a party’s rights are highly limited to situations only where there have been substantial contributions of monetary value, a concept which is unlikely to affect many couples where contributions may be unequal – but not substantial enough to warrant judicial intervention.

The LR(MP) 1970, s2 Act is useful however, in protecting property rights as it likely entitles the claiming party to a claim a share or enlarged share in a partner’s property if it shown they have spent money on improvements to that property. Further, purchasing a property as an engaged couple demonstrates an intention of the contributing party to share the beneficial interest of the Property, if the couple were to reside in the property together, as seen in the case of Van Laethem v Brooker [2005] EWHC 1478 (Ch).

However, the sole focus on “substantial contributions” of a “financial nature” disregards other more indirect contributions that may have been made throughout the relationship. For example, how are preparations towards the wedding to be quantified between a formally engaged couple – not just the financial contributions, but also the time and emotional cost of one party’s decision-making for an event which is now obsolete?

The focus on “substantial monetary contributions”, runs akin to the principle of a “resulting trust” rather than the more flexible guidance of a “constructive trust” established in Stack v Dowden [2007] UKHL 17, widening the pool to more indirect contributions throughout the relationship, which is surprising, given both situations involve a domestic setting likely to be more complicated than purely the financial contributions made by each partner.

Given the lack of updating cases nor statutes on this topic for the last 50 years, it may be time for a refresh and wider protections afforded, specifically to engaged couples.

Rachel Bale is a junior barrister, joining 3PB as a tenant in October 2022, with a diverse practice specialising in Financial Remedy, TOLATA disputes and property and chancery work.

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