Legally Speaking: Who Gets the Engagement Ring if the Wedding is Called Off?

You spent a ton of money on an engagement ring, now she’s called it off and you’ve gone separate ways…do you have a right to get it back?

The mission at Primer is to “dig deep into issues guys in their 20′s face like career success and personal wellness.” Unfortunately, a common issue that young men often face, but that few want to talk about, is navigating through courts and the legal system.

The Legally Speaking series addresses a host of legal issues that young men may encounter, including criminal charges, marriage, divorce, property division, and child custody. The first installment in this series discussed when a young man may need a lawyer and how he can go about finding the right one. Moving into more specific issues, this article addresses rightful possession of an engagement ring when an engagement is called off.

Young men often get engaged. Of those, many or most get married. The rest, however, face one of the least coveted life events around: a broken engagement. When the best laid plans go awry, what happens to the engagement ring, given in anticipation of marriage? The answer, as this article examines, may depend on a variety of things, including where the parties live, when the ring was given, and who is responsible for the failed engagement.

To help the reader understand the different approaches discussed below, let’s begin with a hypothetical:

Jack and Jill are in love. One night, Jack takes a knee, reveals a diamond ring, and asks Jill to marry him. Jill says yes, accepts the ring, and the two agree to marry.

At its most basic level, an engagement ring is a gift. Typically, one party purchases an engagement ring and gives it to another party at no cost to the recipient. However, the gift is often conditional, given in anticipation of a marriage between the parties. These labels are critical in understanding the rights of the parties when an engagement is called off.

Understanding Gifts

A gift, also called an unconditional gift, is a voluntary transfer of property made from one party, the “donor,” to another party, the “donee,” at no cost to the donee. A gift typically has three elements: (1) delivery; (2) an intent to give the gift; and (3) acceptance. The law surrounding gifts is quite simple: a gift, once completed, is irrevocable. In other words, once the three elements of a gift are satisfied, the gift is completed and cannot be revoked.

Jack purchases a necklace for Jill as token of his affection. At dinner, Jack hands Jill the necklace (delivery) with the intent that she have it (intent) and Jill accepts the necklace (acceptance). Jack immediately regrets his decision and asks for the necklace back. However, because his gift is complete, the gift is irrevocable.

A conditional gift is a gift that is subject to or conditioned upon the performance of a condition. A conditional gift has the same three elements as above, but typically includes an explicit condition upon which the gift is given. The law surrounding conditional gifts is equally clear: a conditional gift is not completed until the requisite condition is performed; therefore, it can be revoked any time before the condition is performed.

At lunch one day, Jack hands Jill a bracelet and tells her she can have it if she buys him a boat. Jill accepts. However, before Jill buys Jack a boat, Jack decides he wants the bracelet back. Because his conditional gift is revocable until the requisite condition is met, Jack can demand the return of the bracelet. However, once Jill buys Jack a boat, the gift is complete and becomes irrevocable.

State Approaches to Possession of an Engagement Ring

Who gets the engagement ring when an engagement is broken off depends primarily on the state in which the events transpired. Each state has its own approach to determine possession of the engagement ring. Below is a summary of each approach, including which states follow which approach.

Conditional Gift

The emerging approach on engagement rings, which has been adopted by a majority of states, is that an engagement ring is a conditional gift, which is conditioned upon marriage between the parties. If the condition does not occur, i.e., if the parties do not marry, then the gift is not completed and ownership of the ring reverts to the individual who gave (and presumably purchased) the ring.

Under this approach, courts refuse to consider which party is to blame for the failed engagement. As the Supreme Court of Kansas observed, courts may not be able to determine the precise reason that a relationship ended. Quite simply, courts who follow this approach do not want to wade into the murky waters of assessing fault in a breakup. States that have adopted this approach include Iowa, Kansas, New York, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Wisconsin, among others.

As stated above, Jack gave Jill an engagement ring in exchange for her promise to marry. However, Jill gets cold feet and backs out of the engagement. In a state following the conditional gift approach, the engagement ring reverts to Jack because the condition upon which the ring was given, a marriage between the parties, never occurred.

Conditional Gift with Fault Considerations

While the majority of courts view an engagement ring as a conditional gift, which returns to the purchaser if the condition is never performed, some states have adopted a similar approach that embraces the concept behind conditional gifts, but adds a wrinkle to protect individuals who had no responsibility for a failed engagement. To these courts, it doesn’t seem fair that the donor should always get the ring back, especially in times where the donor is responsible for the failed engagement.

Under this approach, the engagement ring is still considered a conditional gift. However, the donor is not entitled to return of the ring if he was responsible for the broken engagement. In other words, if the donor is at fault for ending the relationship, he is not entitled to a return of the engagement ring, even though the condition upon which the gift was given never occurred. States that have adopted this approach include California, Texas, and Washington.

As stated above, Jack gave Jill an engagement ring in exchange for her promise to marry. However, Jack falls in love with Kate and cancels the engagement. In a state following the conditional gift with fault considerations approach, Jack is not entitled to possession of the ring, even though the condition upon which the gift was given never occurred, because Jack is at fault for the failed engagement.

Unconditional Gift

A minority approach towards engagement rings views the ring as an unconditional gift. These courts apply the law on unconditional gifts to engagement ring, holding that once the three elements of a gift are satisfied, the gift is complete and therefore irrevocable.

Under this approach, an engagement ring becomes property of the donee once the gift is completed. Therefore, when the engagement ends, the ring remains property of the donee, regardless of the reason for the breakup. Currently, Montana is the only state to have adopted this approach.

As stated above, Jack gave Jill an engagement ring in exchange for her promise to marry. Jill subsequently cancels the engagement and elopes to Argentina with her lover, Francisco. In a state that follows the unconditional gift approach, the ring is an irrevocable gift and therefore remains with Jill, regardless of who caused the breakup or why the relationship ended.

Who Keeps the Engagement Ring in My State?

Following this, who gets to keep the engagement ring depends primarily on the state in which the events transpired. The law varies by state, so if you need to know what law applies, then consult an attorney! If you cannot afford to consult with an attorney, or if you simply prefer the ease of the internet, consider a legal question and answer site such as Avvo.com, where public questions are answered by licensed attorneys. On Avvo you can browse previously asked questions, search through results for a particular city or state, or submit your own question. The bottom line is that the case law regarding engagement rings can change at any time, so you need to make sure that the information you receive is up to date.

When an Engagement Ring is Given for Another Purpose

Most engagement rings exchange hands at an engagement ceremony, the event where the donor asks the donee for a commitment to marry. An engagement ring given at an engagement ceremony is subject to the various approaches listed above.

However, if an engagement ring is given on another gift giving holiday or for another purpose, it may be not be governed by the various approaches listed above. Instead, if an engagement ring is given on another giftgiving holiday, or in exchange for some other compensation, for example, if a man proposes to his fiancée on her birthday or on Christmas, a court may construe the engagement ring as a birthday gift or a Christmas gift, not as a gift that is conditioned upon marriage. This is an important distinction because, as stated above, a gift, once completed, is irrevocable.

Jack and Jill are not yet engaged, but Jack is considering a proposal. On Christmas, Jack gives Jill a diamond ring and asks her to marry him. In this scenario, the ring could be a gift conditioned upon marriage, but it could also be a Christmas gift, which, once completed, is irrevocable. Be careful, Jack!

How to Get the Ring Back

Often, when an engagement is called off, the donee maintains possession of the ring. After all, the ring presumably rested on her hand for the duration of the engagement. In the chaos following a breakup, the donee may withhold, sell, or destroy the engagement ring out of anger, spite, apathy, or some other emotion. To prevent such misdeeds, the donor can initiate an action to recover the ring from the donee.

The appropriate action to recover personal property, as well as the appropriate court in which to file such an action, varies from state to state. In Tennessee, where this author practices law, an individual can recover something by filing an action to recover personal property. Such an action can be filed in the general sessions court, circuit court, or chancery court in either the county where the property is located or the county where the donee resides. For an example of statutes regarding actions to recover personal property, you can view T.C.A. § 2930101 and following.

Jack and Jill are engaged again, but Jack is having second thoughts. He cancels the engagement and asks Jill to return the ring. Jill refuses. To get the ring back, Jack files an action to recover personal property in the appropriate court and receives a judgment entitling him to possession of the ring. In this scenario, Jill must either return the ring or, if she has already destroyed or transferred the ring, she must pay Jack the value of the ring.

Conclusion

If you or a friend is involved in a broken engagement, make sure to take inventory of your legal rights and remedies! Of course, just because you have the right to possession of an engagement ring doesn’t mean you have to exercise that right. If you feel that it is right to leave the ring with your ex-fiancée, then that is your prerogative. However, if you are entitled to possession of the ring and you want to exercise that right, you have every right to do so.

The individual entitled to possession of an engagement ring may be well served to consult with an attorney before taking legal action. Though certain legal actions may be initiated without an attorney, the best way to protect your legal interests is through representation of counsel.

NOTICE:This article is written for informative purposes only. This article is not legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship between the author and any reader. Readers are cautioned against relying on the  information contained in this article for legal purposes. Always consult with an attorney before taking any legal action as case law and statutes frequently change.

Scott Kimberly owns and operates the Law Office of W. Scott Kimberly in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. His practice currently focuses on criminal defense, family law, and personal injury. Outside of his law practice, Scott enjoys golf, movies, politics, and his beloved LSU Tigers. You can read more about Scott at www.murfreesborolawyer.com.