Couples who end their engagement to be wed usually must endure one last fight: Who gets to keep the engagement ring? After some finger-pointing and name-calling, couples often finally realize that this is a legal question, and each hires a lawyer and heads to court. This article will outline the arguments and possible outcomes of such legal disputes, and possibly save some individuals the time, effort and expense of litigation following a broken engagement. It will in some cases answer the question: Does she have to return the ring?
Under the law, the engagement ring is generally treated as a gift. The elements of a legal gift are: (1) the gift-giver’s intent to give the item as a gift; (2) the gift-giver’s delivery of the gift to the recipient; and (3) the recipient’s acceptance of the gift. Gifts, of course, generally become the property of the recipient.
The majority of courts consider an engagement ring to be a “conditional gift.” A conditional gift is one in which some future event must occur in order to finalize the gift. In most cases, courts consider the wedding itself to be the future event that must occur in order to finalize the gift of the engagement ring. If the wedding does not take place, if the engagement is broken, the gift does not get finalized, and thus the ring reverts back to the gift-giver. In other words, the ring must be returned.
Recipients often argue that the ring was given as a gift not in contemplation of marriage, but as something else, such as a token of love and affection, or as a memento of a romantic trip to the Caribbean. Others argue that the condition of the gift was not the wedding itself but the acceptance of the proposal. These arguments usually fail.
Courts are in disagreement as to whether “fault” should be taken into consideration when deciding who gets to keep the engagement ring. The majority of courts apply what is commonly referred to as the “fault-based rule.” Simply stated, if the man broke the engagement, the woman keeps the ring; if the woman called off the wedding, she must return the ring.
While at first glance this may seem fair, if you delve deeper, the logic does not always work. What if, for instance, the woman’s mother is actually the indirect cause of the break-up, though it is the man who officially calls off the ceremony? The courts simply cannot be asked to determine which grounds for breaking an engagement should be considered fault and which are justified.
Thus, there is a trend toward a “no-fault” approach. Simply stated, at the end of an engagement, the ring reverts to the gift-giver regardless of fault. In other words, she has to return the ring no matter what. New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Wisconsin, Kansas, and Iowa all currently apply the no-fault approach.