Happily Never After -- Who Gets the Ring When an Engagement Is Ended?

Broken engagements are emotionally painful. However, they can also be financially painful if the person who proposed shelled out thousands of dollars for an engagement ring that his (or her) former betrothed does not want to give back.

So is there a legal obligation for the recipient to return the ring if the engagement is called off? The short answer is, "It depends." Some states have determined that the person who gave the ring gets it back regardless of the reasons for the break-up.

Legal Considerations When Ruling on Who Gets the Ring

However, courts across the country have ruled differently on the issue. The rulings are based largely on what kind of gift the ring is considered -- conditional or unconditional. The ruling may also depend on why the engagement was broken. If the ring is considered an unconditional gift, when an engagement is called off, it is considered a revoked gift. In most cases the recipient is allowed to keep it.

In some states, the law regards the ring as a conditional gift. In most cases, courts determine that the condition is that there will be a marriage. In that case, the recipient must return the ring to the giver. Sometimes the recipient argues that the condition was simply the acceptance of the proposal, which he or she met. Typically, however, that argument is not accepted by the court. Michigan and New York are among the states that view engagement rings as conditional gifts.

In some cases, the engagement is looked at as similar to a contract. If the two people did not fulfill the "contract," both are restored to their previous position. A contract does not have to be in writing or even explicit to be enforced in a court.

In some states, such as California, courts look at the reason for the broken engagement. In this "fault-based" approach, the person who broke the engagement does not get to keep the ring. Therefore, if the recipient broke it off, he or she is ordered to return it. If the giver broke it off, he or she does not get the ring back.

The no-fault approach, however, is increasingly common. Many courts simply don't want to get involved in the details of why the couple called off the engagement.

How Do You Protect Your Investment or a Family Heirloom?

If you are giving a family heirloom or an extremely expensive ring to your betrothed, it may be worthwhile to find out how your state handles the disposition of the engagement ring if the marriage does not occur. If you're planning a large wedding, it may also be worthwhile to find out who is responsible for paying the wedding vendors, such as the florists, venue and caterers, if the wedding does not happen. A family law attorney can help advise you on the best course of action on these matters.

While few people want to hand their betrothed a contract to sign along with an engagement ring, it may be in your best interest to have a written contract in place stating that the ring will be returned to you if the engagement is called off. As with prenuptial agreements, which you should also draw up, a good motto is "Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst."

The information on this page is meant to provide a general overview of the law. The laws in your state and/or city may deviate significantly from those described here. If you have specific questions related to your situation you should speak with a local attorney.

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