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Popping the Question: A Legally Binding Proposal

Imagine you have been dating Mr. Perfect for two years. One evening, during a romantic picnic in the park where you first met, he gets down on one knee and proposes to you with a big shiny diamond ring and promises to be your one and only forever.  Overjoyed, you say “yes” without hesitation.

Excited, you dive into wedding planning. You find the perfect rustic barn venue with a stunning view and put down a hefty non-refundable deposit. You also book your favorite local band, securing them with another substantial deposit.

Three months later, while tasting questionably flavoured wedding cakes, Mr. Perfect admits he got carried away. He confesses he’s not ready for marriage and calls off the engagement and wedding indefinitely. What now?

Diamonds may be Forever, But Promises Might Not Be…

  1. South African courts have traditionally recognised breach of promise claims for over a century, but there’s growing criticism of this practice.
  2. Breach of promise claims could lead to both contractual and delictual (tort) damages.
  3. Recent court cases have reconsidered the validity of these claims, particularly for prospective losses:

   – Sepheri v Scanlan (2008): Questioned the relevance of breach of promise actions but still awarded damages.

   – Van Jaarsveld v Bridges (2010): Criticized the action but didn’t abolish it; awarded actual damages only.

   – Nhlapo v Zimu (2017): Confirmed the abolition of prospective loss claims but allowed actual contractual losses and delictual damages.

4. The courts have argued that breach of promise actions don’t reflect current social values and constitutional considerations and while claims for prospective losses have been abolished, actual contractual losses and delictual damages may still be awarded in certain circumstances.

Till “Debt” Do Us Part: The Price of Cold Feet

The breach of promise can lead to claims for both delictual and contractual damages in South African law. Delictual damages may be sought through the actio iniuriarum, allowing the wronged party to claim sentimental damages if the breach was deemed contemptuous. To succeed in such a claim, the plaintiff must demonstrate that the breach was harmful, with emphasis on the manner of ending the engagement rather than mere hurt feelings.

Contractual damages resulting from a broken promise to marry typically cover actual losses, such as expenses related to wedding preparations. To succeed in a contractual claim, the plaintiff must prove the existence of an agreement to marry and its subsequent breach on a balance of probabilities.

It’s worth noting that claims for prospective losses, which previously allowed the walk out on party to seek compensation for potential future benefits lost due to the broken engagement, have been eliminated from South African law. This aligns with a broader trend in which South African courts, like those in other jurisdictions, have shown increasing disbelief towards breach of promise claims, with recent judgments reflecting a gradual wearing away from these legal actions.  

Engagement rings in South African law:

Now for the closing topic of engagement rings and rights thereto:

The general principle is that an engagement ring is considered a gift given in contemplation of marriage. Here are the key points to consider:

1. If the marriage takes place, the ring typically becomes the property of the recipient.

2. If the engagement is broken off:

   – The person who broke off the engagement usually cannot claim the ring back.

   – If the recipient breaks off the engagement, they may be expected to return the ring.

3. There’s no specific law in South Africa mandating the return of engagement rings, so disputes may be settled based on the circumstances.

4. Some consider the ring a conditional gift, meaning its ownership depends on the marriage occurring.

5. In cases of dispute, courts may consider factors like who ended the engagement and why.

Note that these are general principles, and individual cases can vary.

If you require legal guidance for your specific situation, contact our offices for personalised legal advise clarity.

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