What Happens to the Engagement Ring in a Broken Engagement?

A broken engagement can be a very painful and confusing experience. After you made the choice that you were ready for marriage and it didn't happen, the aftermath is very uncertain. Aside from the emotional distress, you must make a decision about who keeps the engagement ring. Courts vary on this issue, but the answer primarily 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 generally three ways that courts can classify engagement rings, either as outright gifts that cannot be revoked, as conditional gifts that are dependent upon completion of a marriage ceremony, or as compensation (which cannot be returned).

Treating Engagement Rings as a Gift

The law generally requires three elements for an item to be considered 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; and
  • The receiver's acceptance of the gift.

In most cases involving revoked gifts (where all three requirements were shown), courts have held that the item involved was a gift, and the receiver got to keep the item.

Treating Engagement Rings as Conditional Gifts

A conditional gift is one which is based on some future event or action taking place. If the event doesn't occur, then the gift-giver has the right to get the gift back. Most courts classify engagement rings as a conditional gift and award the engagement ring to the giver in broken engagement cases.

However, the receiver of the ring may argue that answering the proposal was the condition required and that the 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. This is usually a no-fault approach, meaning that it doesn't matter which party is responsible for the broken engagement; if the condition is 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 can qualify as compensation, as long as both parties understood that the ring was being given as compensation. For example, in one case, a woman had given her fiancé money and even labor to improve his business. In exchange for her money and labor, he gave her a valuable diamond ring and proposed marriage. The relationship ended in a broken engagement, and the court 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. This approach is called "fault-based" and if the receiver causes the broken engagement, the engagement ring will be awarded to the giver.

For instance, 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 used the funds to buy a business in another city and marry another man. The court ordered all of the gifts, including the engagement ring that the man had given to her, to be given back to him.

Another fault-based approach treats the whole engagement transaction like a contract. Just like in a broken contract situation, a broken engagement means that the parties couldn't fulfill the elements of the agreement, even if only one party was responsible for breaking the contract. However, as is typical in contract breach cases, the likely remedy would be to restore the parties to their previous position so, under this approach, the giver would be awarded the engagement ring in a broken engagement.

Engagement Ring Laws: No-Fault Approaches

The courts that follow this approach don't care who is at fault for the broken engagement. If the engagement is broken, the giver gets the ring back, regardless of the reasons for the split. This is similar to the no-fault divorce approach of family law. No-fault divorces make it possible to settle without getting involved in nasty arguments over who did what to whom. These courts argue that broken engagements should be handled the same way to avoid having to address very personal and emotional situations.

Court Decisions Regarding Broken Engagements

More and more courts lean toward the no-fault approach. It's much 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. To illustrate the point, the court listed some of the common and very personal 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 which is now regretted;
  • Having untidy habits that irritate the other; or
  • Religious differences.

Who Gets to Keep the Engagement 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, especially with the many approaches used by the courts. The hope is that both parties settle (or avoid) any dispute through an amicable agreement, but that's often a tall task after a broken engagement. To find out what the law is where you live and to help you put the pieces back together, you could benefit from meeting with a family law attorney.

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