Who Keeps the Engagement Ring in Tennessee?
Boy meets girl. Boy and girl fall in love. Boy gives girl a ring and the two pledge to spend their lives together. Months later, boy and girl part ways and the engagement is called off. Thankfully, the parties have not married prior to their breakup, so they are spared the complications of divorce. However, there is one prized piece of property that both parties might say is rightfully their own: the engagement ring.
A typical engagement occurs when a man purchases a ring and proposes to his girlfriend. The girlfriend then accepts the ring and pledges to marry the man who proposed. At this point, both parties have a personal interest in the ring; the man, as the "donor," purchased the ring and gave it to the woman and the woman, as the "donee," accepted the ring.
So who gets the ring if the engagement is called off? That question is determined on a state-by-state basis.
Who Keeps the Engagement Ring in Tennessee - General Rule
In Tennessee, an engagement ring is considered a conditional gift, which is given in contemplation of marriage. If the anticipated condition does not occur, i.e., if the parties do not get married, then ownership of the ring returns to the individual who gave it in the first place.
This issue was squarely addressed by the Tennessee Court of Appeals in Crippen v. Campbell. There, the Court unequivocally stated:
"In summary, we hold that an engagement ring is given in contemplation of marriage, and, as such, is impliedly a conditional gift. If marriage, for whatever reason, does not ensue, ownership of the ring never vests in the donee and the donor is entitled to the return of the ring… If and when that which the parties contemplated—the marriage—does not occur, the engagement ring goes back to the one who gave it."
Therefore, in Tennessee, when an engagement is called off, no matter what the reason, the engagement ring is property of the donor.
Who Keeps the Engagement Ring in Tennessee - Notable Exception
Though Tennessee courts have held that the donor is entitled to ownership of the engagement ring if the parties do not marry, there is one notable exception that may allow the donee to keep the ring.
As a general rule, gifts are irrevocable. According to Black's Law Dictionary, a gift is "the voluntary transfer of property to another made without compensation." There are three critical elements in the making of a valid gift: (1) an intention on the part of the donor to give the property; (2) delivery of the property to the donee; and (3) acceptance of the property by the donee.
While engagement rings easily satisfy the three critical elements of a gift, Tennessee courts do not recognize engagement rings as irrevocable gifts. Instead, the courts recognize engagement rings as conditional gifts, whose rights do not fully vest in the donee until marriage. However, this status as a conditional gift applies only when an engagement ring is given in expectation of marriage. In other words, this status as a conditional gift does not apply if an engagement ring is given for some other purpose. If the engagement ring is given to the donee on Christmas, on a birthday, or on some other holiday or gift giving occasion, the donee may be able to argue that the engagement ring was not given in anticipation of marriage, but given for some other purpose, and is therefore irrevocable once given. If the donee can prove that the engagement ring is an irrevocable gift, the donor has no right to repossess the ring. For this reason, an individual who received an engagement ring and wants to keep that ring after the engagement has ended may wish to seek out an attorney to advocate on her behalf.
How to Recover an Engagement Ring
Often, when an engagement is called off, the donee, typically the woman, maintains possession of the ring. After all, the ring presumably rested on her hand for the duration of the engagement. In the chaos following a breakup, the donee may withhold, sell, or destroy the engagement ring out of anger, spite, apathy, or some other emotion. To prevent such misdeeds, the donor can initiate an action to recover the ring from the donee.
In Tennessee, when one party has possession of the property of another, the person entitled to possession can recover that property by filing an action to recover personal property. Such an action can be filed in the general sessions court, circuit court, or chancery court in either the county where the property is located or the county where the donee resides. The entire procedure for filing an action to recover personal property is set forth in T.C.A. § 29-30-101 and following.
The person entitled to possession of an engagement ring may be well served to consult with an attorney before taking legal action. Though certain legal actions may be initiated without an attorney, the best way to protect your legal interests is through advice and representation of counsel.
In Tennessee, in most situations, the individual who gave the engagement ring is entitled to possession of that ring if and when the engagement is called off. This is true regardless of the reason for which the marriage does not occur.
About Scott Kimberly
Scott Kimberly is an Associate Attorney at the Law Office of Joe M. Brandon, Jr., located on the Historic Public Square in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Scott's practice currently focuses on criminal defense, family law, and personal injury.