Engagement rings can be beautiful, elaborate, ornate, flashy, elegant, and, above all, expensive. So when fiance and fiancee split before their wedding bells can ring, the would-be wed are placed between a rock — albeit a big, shiny rock — and a hard place. The ring a fixture to her (and, in a few U.S. states, his) finger, the no longer enchanted or enchanting female must decide whether to cast off the cold metal band-bond clad around her finger and return it to her former lover or to keep it for herself, her rightfully gained and possibly earned property.
But is the decision really hers to make? Can she legally keep the ring, or does the law compel her to return it to her former suitor?
Like most answers to legal questions, the answer to this one is simply, “it depends.” State law governs the engagement ring issue, with some states awarding the ring to its buyer and others awarding it to its receiver. Still other states have no hard and fast rule; they consider the circumstances of the ring’s presentment or the failure of the engagement before deciding who gets the ring. But to understand each jurisdiction’s reasoning, one must first understand what an engagement ring truly symbolizes.
The Marriage Contract — An Engagement Ring as a Conditional Gift
How romance can wane, the so-called “honeymoon period” fading as the newness of the relationship expires. Matters are complicated when a multi-thousand dollar engagement ring garnishes the hand of a betrothed whose wedding day is no longer contemplated.
The majority of states, like New York and Minnesota, deem an engagement ring a “conditional gift.” The term means exactly how it sounds. The receiver of the ring is entitled to keep it on one condition — that, in return, she marry the ring’s giver.
As such, marriage is a contractual relationship in the eyes of the court. A man offers to marry a woman, solemnifying the offer with the presentment of an engagement ring. If the ring and, hence, the offer of marriage is accepted, the woman then must perform her duty under the contract. She may keep the ring as long as she marries its giver, regardless of how long that marriage lasts.
The Engagement Ring Gift — A Gift Is a Gift Is a Gift . . . Sometimes
For a gift to be a “gift” under the laws of most states, the giver must intend the object to be a gift; he must deliver it to his intended receiver; and the receiver of the gift must accept it. In terms of engagement rings, a minority of states (e.g., Montana) will allow the woman to keep the ring if she can prove these three conditions occurred.
Holidays and birthdays muddy the issue. One who gives the ring on such an occasion may be deemed to have given it in celebration of that occasion. The courts who so find may also find that the ring is an unconditional gift, not subject to return after a failed engagement.
A Cheating Lover, a Faultless and Unwanted Ending, and the Return of the Engagement Ring
Why should a woman return an engagement ring to a man who himself sought or caused the split? Some courts say she shouldn’t. In these states, courts will determine who is at fault for the failing of the engagement. If the man is held to be at fault, he can kiss his former lover and the ring goodbye.
Is that justice? Maybe, if one believes in the infallibility of the court system and the veracity of those who seek redress from it. A hard-line rule—either always returning the ring or always denying its retrieval—seems the better approach, providing an egalitarian and objective rule.
As it stands, however, courts vary greatly on the issue. The best advice? Get to know one’s partner fully, propose when ready, and, for wannabe grooms, move out of states like Montana.