Countdown to the Royal Wedding! Rules of Engagement: Premarital Property

The royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle is coming up on May 19, and the marriage of English royalty to an American actress offers a great opportunity to look at the legal aspects of engagements and marital property.

Being engaged is an important rite of passage in our culture. But interestingly, there is no legal status attached to “being engaged.” In the eyes of law, a person passes from from “single” to “married” at their wedding, or more accurately when the marriage license is filed. The engagement is just a social convention.

While there is no formal “engaged” status, engaged people often behave as if their lives have already been joined, sometimes (and often) to their eventual dismay. In a marriage, two people with various finances and possessions join together in a single legal household. Engaged people often commingle their lives in a similar way.

But in the eyes of the law, the circumstances are very different. It is important for couples to understand the possible consequences of commingling their property before the marriage takes place.

While everyone enters an engagement with the expectation of a beautiful wedding and a happy marriage to follow, some engagements do end far short of the altar. In some circumstances, devastated former fiances sometimes discover that when the engagement breaks off, not only have they lost the love of their life, but also their home, their job and quite a bit of their hard-earned money.

A few common-sense precautions and a sensible plan before starting a life together are always a good idea. It might take some of the romance out of the proceedings, but it can save much heartache later.

  1. Work Until the Wedding
  2. Buying that Love Nest
  3. Fiancees and Finances

Work Until the Wedding

Planning a wedding can be a massive job all its own. It can be tempting for a bride (or groom!) to quit their job well before the wedding to devote his or her time to it, especially if:

  • They are marrying someone who will be able to handle the family income on their own
  • The bride is pregnant and expecting to take time off for the baby, and possibly be a stay-at-home mom
  • One partner has a job in a new town, so the other would have to look for a new job after the move anyway

Remember, though, that engagement holds no legal status. A man or woman who quits their job because they believe their income will no longer be required after the wedding, or because they were planning to look for a job in a new city, can find themselves unemployed and with no recourse should the engagement be broken off. Before the marriage actually takes place, neither fiance has a legal obligation to support the other.

In the case of Markle, she announced last year that she was giving up acting. She’s been on the USA show Suits for seven seasons.

Buying That Love Nest

Another common pitfall for engaged couples is buying property. Couples may buy a house together planning for it to be their family home. But until the marriage actually takes place, they are merely partners in a property. Issues can arise when the engagement breaks off and disagreement arises about who owns the home, or who owns what percentage of it.

For instance, say the bride and groom both own condos and plan to sell them to buy a house together with the proceeds.

  • Both condos go on the market two months before the wedding. Hers sells immediately, so she moves into his condo.
  • Things go badly and the wedding is called off. The bride now has no home to go back to, and the groom has no legal obligation to help her out.
  • Even though she still has the money from the sale to buy a new condo, she will still lose thousands of dollars in the costs associated with buying and selling a home.
  • The groom has no legal obligation to pay her back for any of her costs.

In another scenario, perhaps the money from the sale of the condo has been used to put down payments on the wedding. Many times these down payments are non-refundable, and the bride will find herself the only one out of pocket with no legal recourse to force the groom to assume his share of the costs should the engagement fail.

A third possibility is that the money from the sale of the condo has been used to put a down payment on a house in both names. The ex-bride and ex-groom are now equal owners of a house that only the former bride paid for. Even worse, what if the house is in the groom’s name only? This inequity can be fought under a claim of unjust enrichment, but it is a very difficult fight, and much better to avoid in the first place.

In the case of Harry and Meghan, we’d expect the groom brings more than one piece of property in the UK to the marriage. They’ll have access to a not-so-small number of castles and other homes!

Fiancees and Finances

Keeping bank accounts separate until after the wedding can be a smart move. Remember those condos our soon-to-be ex-fiancees put on the market? Say the bride and groom opened a joint checking account with the proceeds of the sale of the bride’s condo, planning to use it for wedding and home-buying expenses, but then the engagement breaks off. The groom could decide to use the money in the account to take himself and ten friends on a luxury trip to Tahiti to help get over the pain of the breakup.

Because the bride knowingly put that money in a joint account and gave him full access to it, she has no recourse under the law to get it back. She now has no fiancee, no place to live, and no money left to buy a new home.

Hope for the Best, Plan for the Worst

These are, of course, worst-case scenarios. Everyone enters an engagement trusting their partner. Unfortunately, some people ultimately prove they are not worthy of that trust. A person who trusts their partner will want to protect them, and should agree to making sure both are treated fairly in their financial dealings.

Talking openly about financial expectations before and after the wedding, and making sure both partners are on the same page regarding finances, is good practice for a long and happy marriage.


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