A broken engagement can be a very painful and confusing experience. You were ready for marriage but it didn't happen. In addition to the emotional distress, you now have to decide who keeps the engagement ring.
From a legal point of view, courts have ruled both ways as to whether the ring must be returned. It depends on how the specific court classifies the gift and, sometimes, on the reasons behind the broken engagement.
Engagement Ring Laws: Gifts, Conditional Gifts, or Compensation
There are three ways that a court can classify an engagement ring, Depending on the state where you live: as an outright gift that cannot be revoked, as a conditional gift that is dependent upon completion of a marriage ceremony, or as compensation which cannot be revoked.
Engagement Rings as a Gift
Legally, there are three elements that define a gift that cannot be revoked:
- The giver's intent to give the item as a gift
- The giver's actual giving of the gift to the receiver
- The receiver's acceptance of the gift
In cases when all three requirements are shown in court, judges may hold that the item was a gift and the receiver gets to keep it.
Treating Engagement Rings as Conditional Gifts
A conditional gift is one that is dependent upon some future event or action taking place. If the event doesn't occur, then the gift-giver has the right to take the gift back. Many courts classify engagement rings as a conditional gift and award the engagement ring to the giver in broken engagement cases.
The receiver of the ring may argue that saying yes to the proposal was the condition required and that condition was met. This doesn't usually work. Courts typically reject the idea that the gift's condition is the engagement and hold instead that the condition to be met is the marriage.
When the court decides the ring is a conditional gift, it usually takes a no-fault approach. It doesn't matter which party is responsible for the broken engagement. If the condition (marriage) was not met for whatever reason, then the gift must be returned.
Most western states follow the no-fault, conditional gift approach and 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.
Treating Engagement Rings as Compensation
There have been cases where a ring qualified as compensation, as long as both parties understood that fact. For example, a woman gave her boyfriend money and labor to improve his business. In exchange, he gave her a valuable diamond ring and proposed marriage. The relationship ended in a broken engagement. A judge awarded the diamond ring to the woman because the diamond ring was given to her as compensation.
Engagement Ring Laws: Fault-Based Approaches
Some courts hold that it isn't fair for the person who caused the broken engagement to keep the engagement ring. In a "fault-based" approach, if the receiver caused the broken engagement, the engagement ring is awarded to the giver.
In Pavlicic v. Vogtsberger, a couple was engaged. The man bought her 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. The engagement ring that the man had given to her had to be given back to him.
Engagement Ring Laws: No-Fault Approaches
A fault-based approach may treat a broken engagement transaction like a broken contract. The parties couldn't fulfill the elements of the contract, even if only one party was responsible for breaking the contract. As is typical in breach of contract cases, the most likely remedy is to restore the parties to their previous position.
Courts that follow this approach don't care who is at fault. If the engagement is broken, the giver gets the ring back, regardless of the reason for the split. Like no-fault divorce, it's possible to settle the matter without nasty arguments about who did what to whom. Handling broken engagements this way avoids addressing personal and emotional situations.
Court Decisions Regarding Broken Engagements
More and more courts lean toward the no-fault approach. It's simpler and straightforward. In a 1999 case, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the giver should always get the ring back in a broken engagement.
Iowa, Kansas, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, and Wisconsin followed this approach. In doing so, the Kansas Supreme Court spelled out the potential difficulties of following a fault-based approach. The court listed some of the common reasons for broken engagements which the court would have to referee, such as:
- Having nothing in common
- Disliking prospective in-laws
- Hostility toward the prospective step-parent by children (minors or adults)
- Having pets that don't get along
- Being hasty in proposing/accepting the proposal
- Being in a rebound situation that is now regretted
- Having untidy habits that irritate the other
- Religious differences
Who Keeps the Ring in a Broken Engagement? Get Answers from an Attorney Today
It's not always clear who's the rightful owner of an engagement ring after things go south. Parties could reach an amicable agreement, but that's often a tall order after the trauma of a broken engagement. To find out about how the courts rule about diamond rings and broken engagements in your state, talk to a local family law attorney.