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Breach of promise, property division and Alberta family law

The tradition of publicly declaring a commitment to formally marry by giving an engagement ring began some time in the 1400s. Evolving from rings made of posies or carved out of wood, the diamond eventually became the signature of this classic emblem of betrothal. Since the original meaning of "betrothed" is to give one's pledge, Alberta still considers a broken engagement as a breach of promise, a common law concept underpinning family law and which may be adjudicated under the laws governing property or damages.

Given modern times, the concept of "engagement to marry" is often viewed as quaint a tradition as the publication of marriage banns. Still, jewellery constitutes property. Retaining or returning an engagement ring with the intention to renege on the marriage pledge can be, without legal counsel, a legal landmine. The contrast in how courts in other provinces have perceived the engagement ring exemplifies the difficulties.

Before Ontario removed breach of promise as a legal cause, a court case highlighted the question of whether the ring was a conditional or unconditional gift. If conditional -- conditional, that is, in the context of an agreement to marry -- then whoever had called off the marriage had to concede the ring to the other party. In other cases, the ring was viewed as an unconditional gift, regardless of who initiated the breakup, and could not be repossessed. In British Columbia, such cases were treated as "contractual," a perception considerably less sentimental than the word, "promise" evokes.

On the face of it, breach of promise may appear a trivial cause to bring to an Alberta court. However, there are situations in which other assets may have been gifted as part of the engagement pledge, such as a house, car or other sizable asset. In these and similar instances, the knowledge of an Alberta family law practice with resources well-versed in property division might be most useful.

Source: findlaw.ca, "What happens if an engagement is broken", Miriam Yosowich, Accessed on Dec. 11, 2017

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