Breakups happen and when they do, the woman often either returns or burns everything the man ever gave her to obliterate all reminders of the relationship. When it’s a broken engagement, however, she often feels she deserves to keep the ring. But does she really? You might think that this is a personal issue between you and your ex-fiancé, but in many states, it is actually a legal issue. State statutes dictate what should happen to your engagement ring if the wedding is called off.
Most people consider an engagement ring to be a gift and once given, the recipient can do with it what she wishes. A minority of states, like Montana, agree and consider the ring an unconditional gift. If either person breaks the engagement, the woman gets to keep the ring. A few jurisdictions take a slightly different view, calling the ring an implied gift. In this case, ownership of the ring is determined by who calls off the wedding. If the man breaks it off, he is not entitled to the ring, and it becomes his gift to the woman. If she breaks the engagement, he can ask for the ring back.
Most states view an engagement ring as something of a contract, or a conditional gift. In this view, the ring is given with the understanding that the couple will get married in the future and symbolizes a verbal contract. Ownership of the ring is not fully transferred until the wedding ceremony is completed. The contract may be either fault or no-fault, depending on the state. The fault approach says that the person who breaks the contract gives up the right to the ring. Common ways in which a person can break the contract are by calling off the wedding or by cheating. However, considering fault in broken engagements is not common. The more common view, the no-fault approach, says that it doesn’t matter who did or said what. If the agreement to wed is broken, ownership of the ring returns to the giver. The reasoning here tends to be that if divorce, even after decades of marriage, can be no-fault, a broken engagement should be as well. States with no-fault rules on the books include Kansas, Wisconsin, Iowa, New York, New Jersey, New Mexico and Pennsylvania. Some courts may also consider whether both parties were actually able to enter into a marriage contract at the time of the engagement. For example, someone who is still married is not legally free to marry another, so a contract made under those conditions is invalid. If the man was married, the ring must be an unconditional gift. If the woman was married, she was not free to accept the ring and should return it. Sometimes a woman will claim that the condition for the gift is not the wedding, but simply acceptance of the proposal. Courts tend to dismiss this argument. Other times, a woman may contend that the ring was not an engagement ring, but simply a gift that happened to be a ring. This can be a difficult argument to win if she has been planning a wedding. Regardless of the law, proper etiquette suggests that the ring should be returned, especially family heirlooms. Viewing the ring as “payment" for time invested in the relationship is understandable, but a ring signifying a broken promise cannot bring closure.