Is an Engagement Ring a Gift?
An engagement ring is generally considered a "gift," which is an object given by one person (the donor) to the other (the recipient). Typically, once given, a gift can’t be taken back. For an engagement ring to qualify as an outright gift, the following three requirements must be met:
- you intended to give the ring as a gift
- you gave the ring to your fiancée, and
- your fiancée accepted the ring.
While these are the general criteria, the laws on this topic vary a bit from state to state. In Montana for example, a fiancée who can prove al three of the above will probably be allowed to keep the ring.
But what happens if the recipient fiancé left the relationship or caused the break up by cheating on the donor? The fiancé who bought the ring may complain that the gift should be returned, because it was conditioned on marriage. If you live in Montana, an engagement ring is an unconditional gift, and courts won't require even a cheating fiancé to return it. But the conditional gift argument may carry some weight in many other states.
What is a Conditional Gift?
The majority of states view engagement rings as conditional gifts, because they are given in return for the promise of marriage. Conditional gifts are premised upon the occurrence of a future event. If the future event—such as a marriage—doesn’t happen, then the donor can take back the gift.
States like New York, Kansas, and Pennsylvania have adopted the conditional gift rule for engagement rings. If you live in one of these states, and you and your fiancé part ways before reaching the altar, the recipient has to give back the ring. It doesn’t matter if your fiancée’s affair caused the breakup: In conditional gift states, fault is irrelevant. Even if you broke off your engagement, the ring on your former fiancée’s finger belongs to you.
When Does Fault Matter?
In a few states like California, the fiancée who calls off the wedding is at fault and doesn’t get to keep the ring. In other words, if you purchased the engagement ring for your significant other, but cancel your wedding plans, your fiancée gets to keep it. An exception may apply in situations where your fiancée was unfaithful, committed fraud, or landed in jail. A court may consider those to be reasonable justifications for calling off a marriage. Your case can also be affected by a prenuptial agreement. Consult a local family law attorney for more specific questions on enforcing a prenuptial agreement.
What if My Fiancée Won’t Return the Ring?
Just because you're entitled to the engagement ring under the law, doesn’t mean your fiancée will part with it willingly. You may be forced to ask a court for help getting back your ring. Where you’ll file your case and precisely what kind of legal intervention you’ll seek will depend on ring's value and the individual facts of your case. For example, in some jurisdictions like Utah, you can file a simple small claims suit if the ring is worth less than $10,000. However, in other states, small claims cases are limited to matters under a few thousand dollars.
You may experience a mixed set of emotions if your engagement ends. The ring that was once a token of love and commitment is now a point of strife. If you're in a dispute with your ex about an engagement ring, it's a good idea to consult with a local attorney to help you understand who should keep the ring in your case.
Questions for Your Attorney
- What’s the law in my state on who gets the ring when an engagement is broken off?
- What can I do if my fiancée called off the wedding, but she still has the ring and has now moved out of state?
- What would happen if I sell the engagement ring after we cancel the wedding?