What Happens When the Wedding is Called Off

When a wedding is called off there are often shattered dreams, broken promises and breaches of contracts that must be handled. Before you can rebuild your life and create new dreams you must determine each party’s entitlement to joint property and each party’s responsibility for joint obligations. 
General Rules of Property Division for Unmarried Couples
Generally, any property that you acquired on your own, any debt that you obtained on your own and any contract that contains just your signature remains yours after your engagement has ended. However, the common law in various states has allowed courts to divide property between unmarried cohabitants. For example, in California, the 1976 case of Marvin v. Marvin resulted in what is known as the Marvin Rules. The Marvin Rules allow unmarried cohabitants to enter express contracts or oral contracts regarding the division of property. In the absence of a contract, the court can determine if an implied contract exists or determine if the legal doctrines of equity and fairness require a division of property among the cohabitants. Some states have adopted the Marvin Rules in their entirety and others only recognize written contracts between cohabitants as binding.
Who Keeps the Engagement Ring?
The answer to that question depends on where you live and the circumstances under which the engagement ring was provided. Some states, such as New York and Michigan, view the engagement ring as a conditional gift that is given in consideration of an upcoming marriage. The courts in these states typically find that if the marriage does not take place then the engagement ring must be returned. It does not matter which party called off the engagement or was at fault for the marriage not taking place. Other states, such as California, look at which party called off the engagement. If the party giving the ring ended the engagement then the person who received the ring can generally keep it. Likewise, if the person who received the ring broke the engagement the person who gave it can request its return. Finally, some states consider engagement rings to be unconditional gifts that do not legally have to be returned if a marriage does not occur.
Most states will recognize valid contracts that specify that a ring should be returned to the giver if an engagement does not end in marriage. It is especially important to consider entering this type of contract if you are providing your fiancée with a very expensive ring or with a family heirloom.
Who pays the Wedding Vendors?
The answer to this question, like the answer to who keeps the engagement ring question, is, in part, dependent on where you live. Some states will require both parties to share in the wedding vendor expenses. Other states will only require the party at fault for ending the engagement to pay the expenses. 
It is important to read your wedding vendor contracts carefully. The vendors may be able to sue both parties for breach of contract if both parties signed the contract and did not pay the penalties or costs described in the contract for a wedding that does not occur. 
While breaking an engagement is not as legally challenging as ending a marriage, it involves many of the same emotions and legal principles. Accordingly, it is advisable to contact a family law attorney when you are ending an engagement.

The information on this page is meant to provide a general overview of the law. The laws in your state and/or city may deviate significantly from those described here. If you have specific questions related to your situation you should speak with a local attorney.

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