The wedding was called off – so who gets the engagement ring?

You’ve proposed to the woman of your dreams, and she said yes. You’ve set a date, prepared the invitations – and, of course, you gave her an engagement ring. But if the wedding plans fall through and you and your fiance split, who keeps the ring? Considering that engagement rings can cost thousands of dollars, it’s no small property dispute. What happens next depends largely on where you live.

In most cases, a ring will be treated as a gift, a conditional gift, or compensation.

  • Gift — If the ring is considered to be a gift, the recipient gets to keep it. This happens when (1) the giver intends the ring to be a gift, (2) the giver actually conveys the ring to the recipient, and (3) the recipient accepts the ring.
  • Conditional Gift — A conditional gift depends upon some other event taking place or condition being met. In the case of an engagement ring, that event of course is the wedding. If the wedding doesn’t occur, the giver gets the ring back. Generally, states that hold to this rule take a no-fault view. That means it doesn’t matter who is responsible for breaking off the engagement; if the wedding doesn’t happen, the ring must be returned.
  • Compensation — These cases are not seen as often, but they do arise. Say a man and woman are engaged to be married. Prior to the wedding, the woman does some work to help the man with his business or some other project. As compensation, the man gives the woman an expensive ring and proposes marriage. When the ring is given in compensation in this manner, the recipient will usually be entitled to keep it.

How a court will treat a particular situation may hinge on whether it considers fault.  In some states, the party who was determined to be responsible for ending the marriage will not get the ring back. In others, however, it doesn’t matter who was at fault for the engagement being broken.  Rather than get bogged down in emotional, often nasty arguments about who was responsible, these states take a simple approach of just returning the ring to the giver.

The Bottom Line

If your engagement was called off and a valuable ring is hanging in the balance, speak to a family law attorney.  The sooner you resolve the dispute, the less likely it is that the ring will be sold, hidden, or lost.