Divorce Law

Who Gets the Ring When an Engagement Ends?

A broken engagement can be emotionally painful. However, it can also be financially painful if the person who proposed spent thousands of dollars for an engagement ring that their fiancé or fiancée does not want to give back. It may take a civil lawsuit to settle who gets the ring after a canceled engagement.

Is there a legal obligation for your ex to return the ring if the engagement is called off? The short answer is that it depends. Some states have determined that the person who gave the ring gets it back, regardless of the reasons for the break-up. In other cases, it may depend on who broke off the engagement. With so much at stake, it is important to understand the legal issues and risks associated with buying an engagement ring.

Legal Considerations When Ruling on Who Gets the Ring

Different states have different laws and court rulings on who gets to keep the engagement ring. How an engagement ring is treated after a break-up may be based on the state's laws on "conditional gifts," which are gifts given in consideration of certain conditions or requirements.

A conditional gift is not final until a future event occurs. If the event does not occur, the person who gave the gift can recover the gift. If the event must occur before the gift is made, it is a conditional precedent. If the gift is given but then revoked after a specific event happens, it is a condition subsequent. With an engagement ring, you normally give the ring as a gift on the condition of marriage.

In some conditional gift states, an engagement ring is a gift exchanged with the mutual agreement that a future event will take place, namely, marriage. If a wedding is canceled, the ring is to be returned to the giver, even if the giver called off the wedding. Similar to no-fault divorces, a majority of courts take a no-fault approach to engagements. If the receiver tries to keep the ring, the giver may be able to take legal actions to force the return of the ring.

In other states, an engagement ring is considered an implied conditional gift. If the giver breaks off the engagement, they lose their right to get the ring back. With the fault-based approach, if the receiver breaks the engagement, the giver can get the ring back.

For example, California has a statute that applies to engagement rings. When either party makes a gift in contemplation of marriage, if the receiver refuses to get married, the giver can recover the gift.

In a few states, an engagement ring is considered an outright gift. For example, in Montana, once the engagement ring is given, there are no conditional requirements. If either spouse breaks off the engagement, the giver cannot demand the gift back. It is up to the receiver to decide if they want to return the ring.

Be Careful What You Say During a Break-Up

A marriage proposal can be an emotional moment. Break-ups can be even more emotional for the engaged couple. Breaking off the engagement could be because of fights over money, infidelity, or family disputes. Many people do or say things in the heat of the moment they would not otherwise do or say. Your words could affect whether you get to keep the ring. For example, if you say "you can keep the ring," or “I don't want the ring back," that could be considered waiving your right to keep the ring. Before making any decision with engagement gifts, talk to your attorney about your rights.

How Do You Protect Your Investment or a Family Heirloom?

If you are giving a family heirloom or an extremely expensive ring to your betrothed, it may be worthwhile to find out how your state handles the disposition of the engagement ring if the marriage does not occur. Talk to your family lawyer about your state's engagement ring law. While few people want to hand their significant other a contract to sign along with an engagement ring, but it may be in your best interest to have a written contract in place stating that the ring will be returned to you if the engagement is called off.

Many newly engaged couples have a difficult time confronting the possibility that the marriage might not work out. Many couples also avoid talking about prenuptial agreements, even if it could benefit both spouses. A family law attorney can help advise you on the best course of action on these matters.