Returning an Engagement Ring

What happens when one of you calls off the wedding? The answer to who gets to keep the engagement ring varies from state to state.

By , Attorney

We've all seen the exciting online videos of elaborate wedding proposals, but have you ever considered what happens if someone calls off the wedding? Do you have to return your engagement ring? Continue reading to learn more.

What Is a Legal Gift?

We learned at an early age that if you give someone a gift, you shouldn't expect it back. There's nothing different between then and now, so if you offer someone an engagement ring, with the intention of giving it to your partner as a gift, and your partner accepts it, you shouldn't expect the ring back if you break up.

What Is a Conditional Gift?

Of course, like many issues in the legal world, there are always exceptions to the general rule. Courts typically treat an engagement ring as a "conditional gift," which means you must meet a future condition before you can consider the gift to be yours. A typical example of a conditional gift is where a relative creates a trust fund for a child, on the condition that the child can't use the funds until the age of 18 and graduates from high school with a certain grade point average. If the child turns 18 and fails to graduate or meet the grade requirement, the trustee won't disperse the funds from the trust.

Although some parties have tried to convince the court that the condition of the engagement ring is to say "yes" to the proposal, most state courts have rejected this argument stating that there's an implied condition of marriage that comes with a proposal and engagement ring.

When a relationship ends, most couples understand that the giver of the ring (donor) should get it back from the recipient (donee.) Today, an engagement ring can cost thousands of dollars, so keeping an expensive gift like this after the relationship has ended may seem unethical. One exception is if the ring belonged to the donee's (recipient) family, or if the donee paid for the ring, then the donee can keep the ring regardless.

Montana is the lone state that has a differing opinion on engagement rings. In Albinger v. Harris, a 2002 case, the court ruled that an engagement ring is an unconditional gift, and the court will treat it the same way it handles any other gift. (Albinger v. Harris, 2002 MT 118, 48 P. 3d 711 (2002).)

Does It Matter Who Ended the Relationship?

Although most courts agree that an engagement ring is a conditional gift, they don't all agree on whether it should matter who ended the engagement or why.

In a handful of states, the courts believe that the exchange of the engagement ring is more like a contractual transaction than a condition. If you don't fulfill the agreement (marriage), then each party should be restored to the same position they were in before the contract. In other words, the purchaser of the ring should get the ring back if the recipient backs out of the wedding. That said, if the purchaser of the ring ends the engagement, the court believes that the recipient should keep the ring so as not to reward the donor for breach of contract. (Spinnell v. Quigley, 785 P.2d 1149 (1990) Mate v. Abrahams, 62 A.2d 754, 754-55 (N.J. 1948.))

While it's important to distinguish who broke off the relationship in these states, surprisingly, the courts aren't interested in the reason why you ended things. In other words, if you (the recipient), leave the relationship because your partner was unfaithful, the person who paid for the ring still gets to keep it.

For some couples in California, Texas, and Washington, if you received the ring on another holiday, like Christmas or Valentine's day, the court will take a few extra steps before deciding whether the ring was a conditional or unconditional gift.

Most States Doesn't Consider Who Ended the Engagement

Most states stand the ground that the recipient must return the engagement ring if the wedding is called off, regardless of the reason for the breakup.

In one Michigan case, a man proposed to his girlfriend and presented her with a $19,500 engagement ring. After accepting the proposal, the woman then refused to sign a prenuptial agreement, which led to the couple calling off the wedding. When the man asked for the ring back, the woman refused, and the man sued. The court ruled that the engagement ring was an inherently conditional gift, meaning there's a presumption that you will get married if you accept it. Regardless of who called off the wedding, the purchaser was entitled to get the ring back.

This no-fault trend is prevalent in most states because the court doesn't have the resources (or the desire) to dig through a couple's dirty laundry to determine who was at fault for the breakup. After all, the court reasons that no-fault divorce (available in every state) makes it possible for couples to end their marriages without a bitter court battle over whose fault it was, and the courts should treat engagements the same way.

It's important to understand that if you get married, the recipient gets to keep the ring, even if you divorce later.

Because each state has its own method of dealing with engagement rings and conditional gifts, it's important to consult with an experienced family law attorney in your state to learn your options.

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