Who gets the engagement ring, if the engagement is called off?

Who gets the engagement ring, if the engagement is called off?

Marriage is often referred to as a union between two people, and it certainly is that in more ways than one. But in those instances where a couple is engaged and one (or both) of the individuals gets cold feet, what becomes of the ring?

If you find yourself researching the return policy on engagement rings, then your current partner is likely not a great candidate for marriage. However if something happens in your otherwise blissful relationship that results you calling off the wedding, it’s important to know what you are entitled to recover.

The rules governing distribution of assets subject to a divorce are rather clear cut. However where there was never a marriage to begin with, determining which assets (if any) are subject to distribution gets tricky. With regard to engagement rings, courts have largely found them to be a gift given from one partner to another. The legal definition of “gift” includes three elements:

  1. That the donor did intend to give the ring as a gift.
  2. That the donor did actually deliver the ring to the donee.
  3. And third, that the donee did accept the ring from the donor.

But what happens to the poor guy who saves up for years so that he can afford a diamond for his fiancee, only for her to break off the engagement and abscond with the ring? Under the legal definition of “gift” it would seem that he is simply out of luck. In order to circumvent this type of inequity, many courts have moved toward considering an engagement ring a conditional gift. Conditional gifts require the same elements as gifts generally, but with an added layer. That is, in order for a conditional gift to transfer from donor to donee, some event must first occur. In the case of engagement rings, that event is a wedding. The ring is a gift conditioned on the parties carrying out the wedding. Should that condition not be met, the elements of a conditional gift are not satisfied, and the ring is returned to the donor.

Other states have taken a Contractual view of engagements, stating that by giving and receiving the engagement ring, parties have entered into an agreement to marry. The ring represents that agreement. Under contract law, a party in breach of a contract or agreement cannot benefit from their breach. So, whichever spouse “backs out” of the engagement may not end up with the engagement ring under this analysis. This fault-based approach is certainly not the status quo as it requires courts to make determinations on what event or condition did ultimately lead to the dissolution of an engagement.

As more and more states begin to recognize no-fault divorces, the trend since the 1990s has been for courts to consider engagement rings conditional gifts. In 1999, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania ruled that in the case of a broken engagement, the donor should recover the ring regardless of fault or circumstance. The Court’s reasoning is based on the conditional gift analyses, which more than twenty states have adopted. As is the case with anything, but especially with those issues related to marriage, making an informed decision is paramount.


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About the author

About Christopher Casserly

Chris joined the firm in 2013 after graduating from Villanova University School of Law. While at Villanova Chris focused on Family Law and Alternative Dispute Resolution. In addition, he participated in the Villanova Law Civil Justice Clinic where he advocated for indigent clients facing custody issues. Prior to attending law school, Chris received his B.A. from Providence College where he studied English and French. Chris is a Supervising Attorney and Team Leader at LaMonaca Law. Chris was named a “Top Lawyer” in Family Law by Main Line Today in 2015 and 2017, as well as a Best Lawyer in the area of Adoption in the Delaware County Daily Times. He is a member of the American Bar Association Family Law Section, the Pennsylvania Bar Association, and the Delaware County Bar Association, where he serves as chair of the Family Law Section’s Custody Committee. When he’s not advocating for his clients, Chris enjoys cooking, all things Seinfeld-related, and being at the shore with his family and their dog, Molly.