The Return of the Ring

When Does an Engagement Ring Have to Be Returned?

Long after the heartbreak has healed, one nagging question often remains: Who gets to keep the ring?

The engagement is over. In addition to the sorrow, the heartbroken must deal with the return of the deposits left with the caterer, the florist, and the dressmaker. But when all that dust has cleared, one rankling question often remains: Who gets to keep the ring?

For the answer — or for vengeance — many turn to the legal system. State courts around the nation that have considered the ring issue have reached differing conclusions.

When Is a Gift a Gift?

Courts generally treat the engagement ring as a gift, from the donor (the person who gave the ring) to the donee (the person who received it). To be considered a legal gift, three things must be present: the donor’s intent to give the ring as a gift, the donor’s delivery of it to the donee, and the donee’s acceptance of the item. If the person to whom the ring was given can show all three elements, a court will consider the ring to be a gift to him or her.

Conditional Gifts

But the majority of courts also consider such a gift to be a conditional one. That means that, until some future event occurs, the gift isn’t final; if that event does not occur, then the donor has the right to get the gift back. In real life, many parents use this concept by, for example, giving a teenage daughter the keys to the family car, on the condition that she maintain a certain grade point average for a specified period of time. If she doesn’t make the grade, the keys must be returned.

Women who want to keep their engagement rings often argue that the condition needed to make the engagement ring a final gift is simply the acceptance of the proposal of marriage, not the completion of the marriage ceremony. That way, if the engagement is broken, the ring remains her property.

But this argument often loses. The majority of courts find that the gift of an engagement ring contains an implied condition of marriage; acceptance of the proposal is not the underlying “deal.” Absent some other understanding — say, that the ring is merely a memento of a great trip to Hawaii — most courts look at engagement rings as conditional gifts given in contemplation of marriage: “Once it is established the ring is an engagement ring, it is a conditional gift.” Heiman v. Parrish, 942 P.2d 631, 633 (Kan. 1997). However, the Supreme Court of Montana has come down on the opposite side of this fence, rejecting the conditional gift theory and declaring that an engagement ring is an unconditional, completed gift and that’s that. Ex-fiances in that western state are unlikely to get help from the courts if they want to get an engagement ring back. Albinger v. Harris, 2002 WL 1226858 (Mont. 2002).

Fault for the Break-Up

When divining who gets to keep the engagement ring, courts do not agree on whether it should matter who did the breaking up or why. To some judges, it isn’t fair that the donor should always get the ring back, especially if the donee stood ready to go ahead with the marriage and the donor broke it off. These same judges think it would be unfair for the donee to keep the ring if the engagement was broken because of the donee’s unfaithfulness or other wrongdoing. In such cases, they order that the ring should be returned to its purchaser. This “fault-based” rule is the majority approach.

Other judges, though, think that the whole matter of who broke up with whom isn’t any of their business. If the wedding’s off, they say, the donor should get the ring back, regardless of who, why, where, or when the engagement ended. After all, they reason, no-fault divorce makes it possible for marriages to end without bitter court fights over whose fault it was; engagements should be treated the same way.

Just a few years ago, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania stuck steadfastly to the no-fault reasoning and decreed that the donor should always get the ring back if the engagement is broken off, regardless of who broke it off or why. Lindh v. Surman, 742 A.2d 643 (Pa. 1999). Iowa, Kansas, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, and Wisconsin have the same rule.

Justices on the Supreme Court of Kansas, which also adopted the no-fault rule in 1997, detailed the difficulties that they imagined would be theirs with a fault-based approach:

[S]hould courts be asked to determine which of the following grounds for breaking an engagement is fault or justified? (1) The parties have nothing in common; (2) one party cannot stand prospective in-laws; (3) a minor child of one of the parties is hostile to and will not accept the other party; (4) an adult child of one of the parties will not accept the other party; (5) the parties’ pets do not get along; (6) a party was too hasty in proposing or accepting the proposal; (7) the engagement was a rebound situation which is now regretted; (8) one party has untidy habits that irritate the other; or (9) the parties have religious differences.

Heiman v. Parrish, 942 P.2d 631, 637 (Kan. 1997).

But consider the case of George J. Pavlicic, a 75-year-old man, who had a romance with Sara Jane Mills, aged 26. They became engaged in 1949. He bought her a house, two cars, an engagement ring, and a diamond ring in anticipation of their marriage. George then lent her a significant amount of money, including $5,000 to buy a saloon. Sara Jane then disappeared. The next time she was heard from, she had indeed used the $5,000 to buy a saloon, but it was in another city, and she had married another man.

George went to court. He wanted everything that he’d given Sara Jane back. He won. But Sara Jane argued on appeal that a new law, the Heart-Balm Act, made his lawsuit illegal, because it outlawed all legal actions for “breaches of contract to marry.” But the Pennsylvania Supreme Court sided with George. The act, it held, was meant to end a kind of legal blackmail, where people threatened lawsuits for breach of the promise to marry that would tarnish the other person’s reputation. But the act, the court concluded, didn’t alter the rule of conditional gifts. Pavlicic v. Vogtsberger, 136 A.2d 127, 130 (Penn. 1957).

Some courts applying this fault-based rule consider the exchange of the ring to be more like a contract than a conditional gift: The ring is just a symbol of the agreement to marry. If that agreement is not performed, then those involved should be restored to their former positions — as they would be if the contract was for, say, the delivery of a bushel of wheat — and the ring should be returned to the person who first had it. But if the donor backs out, the donee should keep the ring, because a person who breaches contracts should not be rewarded for doing so. Spinnell v. Quigley, 785 P.2d 1149 (1990).

Copyright 2004 Nolo

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