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Engagement Ring Laws
Valentine’s Day is regarded by many as the most romantic day of the year. People often enjoy celebrating this day by proposing to their significant other. While most engagements will lead to a marriage, some engagements do not make it to the altar and result in significant battles over the engagement ring. This blog addresses who owns the engagement ring after a failed engagement in California and throughout the United States. Although etiquette rules that an engagement ring should be returned when a wedding is called off regardless of whom broke the engagement, the legal system has differing opinions on this issue.
Before the 1950s, many states in the U.S. had what were called heart balm statutes. According to heartbalmlaws.uslegal.com, these were laws allowing people to sue on grounds such as alienation of affection or breach of promise and seduction if an engagement was broken off. After the 1950s, most states repealed these laws, but a handful of states still allow these suits under certain circumstances. Modern courts are less likely to worry about why an engagement has been broken.
State decisions on returning engagement rings can be grouped into four types. The first group of states considers the ring a conditional gift. A conditional gift is one that does not become final until a condition is met. That condition is usually the wedding. Fault may be considered under this rule, so that a man who calls off an engagement may not get the ring back unless the woman has misbehaved or been unfaithful. Other states have a no-fault rule and will not consider fault at all. The third type of state applies the implied gift rule, which means that the man cannot get the ring back if he breaks up the engagement, but a woman who breaks an engagement must return the ring. The last type of state applies the unconditional gift rule, which holds that an engagement ring is like every other gift and the gift is final at the moment the ring is given.
Some of the circumstances that determine if an engagement ring has to be returned include where you live, how you received the engagement ring, and who broke the engagement. Many courts look at an engagement ring as a conditional gift that is given in contemplation of marriage. If there is no marriage, then the engagement ring needs to be returned. Among these conditional gift states are Michigan and Pennsylvania. “The courts also have held in these states that the reasoning for no-fault divorces holds for no-fault broken engagements so an engagement ring should always be returned regardless of who decided to call off the engagement.” (About.com Guide to Getting Married)
Increasingly, more states are leaning toward a no-fault approach to broken engagements. In 1999, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled the giver should always get the engagement ring back. Iowa, Kansas, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York and Wisconsin also have adopted this approach. In a nutshell, under the no-fault approach, the courts do not care who is at fault for the broken engagement. If the engagement is broken, the giver gets the ring back, regardless of who broke off the engagement, or why. (Wikipedia)
In implied gift states it depends on who breaks the engagement. These courts, as in California, follow a middle ground between the two extreme positions by determining which party broke the engagement. These states, known as fault-based states, find it unfair to the person that received the ring if the donor breaks off the engagement because the receiver of the ring was preparing him or herself for marriage. The national majority approach is that a donor who breaks off the engagement for a reason that has nothing to do with the receiver’s behavior cannot recover the ring. Other courts find it unfair for the receiver to keep the ring if the receiver's wrongdoing or unfaithfulness was the cause of the break up. (USlegal.com)
Some courts, including Montana, have held the belief that an engagement ring is an unconditional gift and so it doesn't need to be given back. Although engagement ring disputes are typically based on fault or no fault, there are a few other factors which may sway a court’s decision:
Family heirloom- If the ring originally belonged in the donor’s family, the receiver should return it as the receiver no longer intends to join the donor’s family.
Special occasion – If the ring was given during a special occasion, such as Christmas or a birthday, the ring may be treated like any other gift: the ring belongs to the receiver and has no obligation to return it.
Prenuptial agreements – Prenuptial agreements are contracts made about the division of property before the couple is officially wed. Since the prenuptial agreement is actually a written contract, the agreement will supersede, or replace, the assumptions made from any oral agreements.
The best way to avoid any conflict about the return of the engagement ring in case of a breakup is to enter into a written agreement at the time of the engagement, stating what will happen to the ring. You may want to do this if the ring is a valued family heirloom. The issue of the engagement ring can also be included in a prenuptial agreement.(Wikipedia)
As state law regarding the return of the ring is uneven at best it will likely be necessary to contact an attorney regarding this issue. Engagement rings are typically one of the most expensive items exchanged between a couple. If you are interested in recovering an engagement ring from a person who is less than willing to give it back you may need the assistance of an experienced family law attorney. To schedule a free 1 hour consultation at The Law Office of Matthew Rudy, please contact us.