What Happens to the Engagement Ring in a Broken Engagement?

A broken engagement can be a very painful and confusing experience. One day you were eagerly anticipating your wedding day. But then the next day, you learn that day will not come. 

On top of the emotional distress, you are wondering who keeps the engagement ring. Can you get the engagement ring back if your ex-fiancé has it?

The return or retention of the ring depends on varying court rulings and state laws. It depends on how the specific court classifies the gift. For instance, is the ring a conditional gift or an unconditional gift? Does it have particular importance to the giver as a family heirloom? There are also cases wherein the court looks at why the engagement ended.

In this article, you will learn about the intricacies of who gets the engagement ring in a broken engagement.

Engagement Ring Laws: Unconditional Gift or Conditional Gift

Traditionally, an engagement ring is used as a symbol of a couple's mutual promise to enter into marriage. In the absence of the contrary, engagement rings are, in nature, a conditional gift. However, some states classify engagement rings as an unconditional gift. For instance, in Montana, the receiver or the donee gets to keep it regardless of whether the marriage happened. With this, it is important to take that there are two classifications of engagement rings:

  1. An unconditional gift: The giver/donor gives an unconditional gift outright
  2. A conditional gift: The receiver/donee accepted the gift in contemplation of marriage

Engagement Rings as an Unconditional Gift

The giver or donor outright gives an unconditional gift. Regardless of whether the wedding happens, the receiver can keep the engagement ring. To classify the ring as an unconditional gift, it must meet three criteria:

  1. The giver intends to give the item as a gift;
  2. The giver's actual giving of the gift to the receiver; and
  3. The receiver's acceptance of the gift

When these conditions are met, courts view engagement rings as gifts. Therefore, the receiver or donee can keep the engagement ring.

But only a few states consider engagement rings an unconditional gift. Montana is one of the few states that has this interesting exception. In Montana, the law views the engagement ring as an unconditional gift. This means the receiver or donee can keep the ring even if the wedding does not occur. This condition applies regardless of who ended the engagement.

Engagement Rings as Conditional Gifts

conditional gift is dependent upon some future event. If the event does not occur, the gift-giver has the right to return the gift. On the other hand, if the condition happened, the giver could not reclaim the gift anymore.

Many courts classify engagement rings as a conditional gift. The engagement ring is a fit in anticipation of marriage. Thus, if the future condition (marriage) does not occur, the ring should be returned to the giver. When the court decides the ring is a conditional gift, it usually takes a no-fault approach.

It does not matter which party is responsible for the broken engagement. If the couple does not fulfill the condition of marriage for any reason, then they must return the gift. The receiver of the ring may argue that saying “yes" to the proposal was the condition required. This does not usually work, and courts typically reject this idea. Instead, courts look at the marriage as the condition that needs to occur.

Most Western states follow the no-fault, conditional gift approach. Thus, they award the engagement ring to the giver in a broken engagement. A few states, like Montana, classify the engagement ring as an unconditional gift and award the ring to the receiver in broken engagements.

However, in California, the donor of the ring may have the ring back if there is a mutual agreement to call off the wedding. But the donee may keep the engagement ring if the donor or the giver is the reason the engagement ends.

Fault-Based Approaches

Some courts hold that it is not fair for the person who caused the broken engagement to keep the engagement ring. Thus, whoever called off the wedding cannot have the ring, even if it was the giver. This is the "fault-based" approach. Below are the states that have adopted this approach:

  • Alabama
  • Alaska
  • Kentucky
  • New Hampshire
  • Massachusetts

In Pavlicic v. Vogtsberger, a couple was engaged. The man bought her a house, two cars, and a diamond ring in anticipation of marriage. He also lent her $5,000 to buy her own business. The woman disappeared, only to resurface later, having married another man and spent the funds to buy a business in another city. The court ordered all the gifts revoked. She had to return the engagement ring he had given her.

No-Fault Approaches

In the “no-fault" approach, the giver of the ring gets to keep it. This is regardless of who ended the engagement.

Most states prefer this rule. Most engagements end by mutual agreement or because of personal issues. Some examples are religious differences, hostility among children, pets that did not get along, and more.

There are also cases where the judges decided that the partner who broke the engagement should not be forced to give the ring. As a result, the “no-fault" view is widely accepted by multiple states.

In a 1999 case, Lindh v. Surman, 742 A.2d 643, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the giver should always get the ring back in a broken engagement. The following states also followed the no-fault approach:

  • Iowa
  • Kansas
  • New Jersey
  • New Mexico
  • New York
  • Wisconsin

Seek Legal Advice From a Family Law Attorney

It is not always clear who keeps the engagement ring in broken engagements. Some parties part ways and enter into a mutual agreement about who gets to keep it. In contrast, others argue about who is the rightful owner of the ring.

Because of these disparities in state law, it is recommended that you talk to a family law attorney. They can give you legal advice as to who keeps the ring. In addition, family lawyers can also help resolve other issues that you and your partner may have. They can provide legal information and advice on the following matters:

To learn more about family law matters, you may visit FindLaw.com. There also is a directory of family law attorneys or divorce attorneys in every state.

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