Getting Engaged? The Law Regarding Broken Engagements.

The holidays are upon us, and young hearts are dreaming of diamond rings under the tree.  Christmas and New Year’s Eve are some of the most common days to pop the question.  I don’t want to be the Grinch, but I thought it might be useful to discuss what happens if the engagement is broken.

Marriage is a contract – a promise to marry and be faithful.  If one party doesn’t perform on the contract, then there are financial penalties, one of which is the ownership of the engagement ring.  In Kentucky, a runaway Bride must return the engagement ring; but, if the Groom is caught cheating with the Maid of Honor, the Bride gets to keep the engagement ring.

If you don’t think this is fair, consider in terms of a different contract, such as buying a house.  The buyer gives an earnest money deposit with a purchase contract.  This is “consideration” for the seller holding the house for the buyer until the sale is complete.   The seller gives up their right to accept other offers even if they are better.  If the buyer backs out of the deal, the seller may be allowed to keep the deposit, depending on the terms of the contract.  This is fair because the seller gives up other possibilities while waiting for the buyer to complete the sale.  If the seller backs out of the contract, then the buyer can demand specific performance and possibly obtain damages, such as temporary housing costs etc., from the seller for their failure to perform.  Again, this is fair, because the buyer is relying on the seller to complete the contract.

Likewise, an engagement ring is the earnest money deposit for marriage.  Both parties are expected to surrender their opportunities for other suitors and declare their vows of eternal love to one another.  When one person fails to complete the marriage contract, it is appropriate that the other is awarded “damages”, such as keeping the engagement ring and perhaps money to pay the caterer, etc.

Be aware that the vendors for the wedding must be paid regardless if the wedding takes place.  If the party that called off the wedding did not sign the contract with the caterer, the only way to force them to pay is to file a breach of contract claim against them.  But let’s think about this for a minute.  Tradition says the Bride’s parents pay for the wedding, and they often sign the contracts with the vendors, yet they are not part of the marriage contract.  So how do they sue the Groom for breach of contract?  Best practices direct the parents to demand that the Bride and Groom sign ALL vendor contracts to keep both parties on the hook if things go bad.

The wedding ring itself is a different story.  The wedding ring is given after the marriage vows are completed, and therefore becomes marital property.  Unfortunately, this is typically the less expensive of the two rings.

Cheers to all of the couples getting engaged over the holidays!  Don’t let this Grinch steal your fun.

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