Breakups can be rough, especially if you had marriage plans. Fights about returning an engagement ring can add to the emotional stress. Do you have to return the engagement ring, or can you keep it? The answer to that question depends on the law in your state.
An engagement ring is almost always a gift—typically from one future spouse to another. As a general rule, there's no obligation to return a gift. But most people see engagement rings as a symbol of a commitment to marry. Does that mean they're a special kind of gift? Most states say yes.
Some gifts have a condition attached to them. These gifts don't actually belong to the recipient until the condition is met. The vast majority of states consider engagement rings to be conditional gifts made "in contemplation of marriage." When the implied condition—the marriage—doesn't happen, the person who gave the ring (the donor) has a right to get it back.
It doesn't matter how long the marriage lasts. The condition for the gift is met as long as the couple went through with the wedding. So if they get divorced, the recipient will usually get to keep the ring as a separate property gift. That's because state laws on property division during divorce treat gifts as separate property belonging to the recipient. But here again, the question of what happens to engagement (and wedding) rings after divorce may depend on where you live.
In a few states, the courts have found that engagement rings are unconditional, or absolute, gifts that belong to the recipient regardless of whether the couple goes through with the wedding. For instance, the Montana Supreme Court found that applying the conditional-gift theory to engagement rings would violate the policy in Montana (as in most states) to do away with "heart balm" lawsuits based on the breach of promise to marry. Besides, it would be a form of gender bias, because men would mostly benefit from a requirement that the ring be returned. Meanwhile, women typically pay for the bulk of pre-wedding expenses, but they have no way of getting that money back when the wedding is cancelled. (Albinger v. Harris, 48 P.3d 711 (Mont. Sup. Ct. 2002).)
If you live in a state where engagement rings are considered conditional gifts, do you get to keep the ring if you weren't responsible for the breakup? What if it was a mutual decision? Some state laws are clear on the answers to those questions. But at times, courts in the same state take different approaches.
In states that treat engagement rings as conditional gifts, most courts have held that the recipient must return the ring to the donor no matter who was responsible for the couple's breakup. As courts have reasoned, the only issue is whether the condition for the gift was met—the question of "fault" is irrelevant in gift law.
Over the years, this no-fault approach has become more prevalent. For one thing, courts don't have the resources (or the desire) to dig through a couple's dirty laundry. And, as a South Carolina court pointed out, there's no clear standard for determining who's really to blame for the end of an engagement. (Campbell v. Robinson, 726 S.E.2d 221 (S.C. Ct. App. 2012).)
Also, courts have reasoned that engagements should be treated like no-fault divorce (available in every state), which makes it possible for couples to avoid bitter court battles over who's to blame for the end of their relationship.
The courts in some states—like Texas—take the opposite approach, finding that an engagement ring must be returned when the recipient ended the engagement—but not if the donor was the one who called off the marriage. (Curtis v. Anderson, 106 S.W.3d 251 (Tex. Ct. App. 2003).)
Surprisingly, these courts generally aren't interested in the reason for the breakup—just who called off the wedding. In other words, if you received an engagement ring but then ended the relationship because your partner was unfaithful, you'll still have to return the ring if you live in a state that takes the fault approach to conditional-gift law.
What if you live in a state that takes the fault approach, but both you and your ex decided to end your engagement? The law in your state might address this situation directly. Under conditional-gift law in California, for instance, the donor is entitled to get the engagement ring back if the wedding was called off by mutual agreement or by the recipient. But the recipient may keep the ring if the donor was responsible for the breakup. (Cal. Civ. Code § 1590 (2022).)
What if you believe you're entitled to get back the engagement ring that you bought, but your ex refuses to return it? Because the rules vary from state to state, you should speak with a local lawyer who can explain how the laws in your state apply to your circumstances. An experienced attorney can also walk you through your legal options, which might include suing your ex for fraud or unjust enrichment.