When Does an Engagement Ring Have to be Returned?
Most states have abolished a cause of action for breach of contract to marry. However, this does not address the issue of ownership of the engagement ring. When determining ownership of an engagement ring, the court must look at whether the giving of the ring was an absolute gift or a conditional gift. If the ring was an absolute gift, the person who received the gift is the owner and does not have to return the ring if the marriage does not take place. Alternatively, if the ring was given as a condition of marriage the person who gave the ring has ownership rights and will be able to recover the ring if the engagement is terminated. When making this determination, the court will consider the intent of the parties and the historical meaning of an engagement ring. Most commonly, an engagement ring is regarded as a conditional gift made in contemplation of marriage.
Accordingly, most states deem an engagement ring to be a conditional gift and the owner of the property is entitled to recovery of the ring itself or the value of the ring. In some states, the court considers who ended the engagement to be a factor in determining who may recover (or keep) the ring and/or its value. If the individual who gave the ring was at fault in ending the engagement, he or she may not recover the ring or its value. This viewpoint is in the minority. More commonly, fault is not a consideration and the person who purchases the ring has ownership rights, regardless of which party ended the engagement. An exception may be if the party who purchased the ring induced the other party to accept his or her proposal due to fraud or duress. If that is the case, the court will not give ownership rights to the fraudulent party. In addition, if both parties agree to end the engagement, the ring is usually recoverable by the purchaser. Of course, if the parties have an agreement regarding the ownership of the engagement ring, that agreement will usually control and will be upheld by the court.
Death or Negligence
As a general rule, if the individual who was given the engagement ring dies prior to marriage, the individual who purchased/gave the ring retains ownership rights. An exception to this rule is if the party who purchased the ring caused the death of the other party. If the donor (purchaser) caused (or negligently caused) the death of the donee, he or she may not recover the ring or its value.
It is common for engaged couples to receive engagement or prewedding gifts. The treatment of such gifts may differ from state to state. However, most commonly, premarital gifts are considered split ownership between both parties. In that case, the gifts will be split equally among the parties, if the marriage does not occur. Many jurisdictions also look at the intent of the gift giver when determining ownership of a gift. If the giver did not have a specific person in mind when giving the gift, or the intent is unclear, the may be considered given to both parties.
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