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The Rules of Engagement: In Case of Breakup, Who Gets the Ring?

For Judith Martin, aka Miss Manners, the matter of who gets the ring when an engagement ends is simple: “The laws of etiquette absolutely require you to return an engagement ring when the engagement is broken, for whatever reason, and by however nasty a fiancé.”

State laws are not quite that absolute. And, as seems to be the case in most areas of law these days, social media can compound the issue. Most states have laws that specifically deal with engagement rings and gifts during betrothal. The laws are based on one of three approaches:

The ring was a conditional gift

Most states consider an engagement ring to be a conditional gift, given with an expectation that a marriage will take place. If the marriage doesn’t occur, the conditions of the gift have not been met and ownership reverts to the person who gave the ring. Put simply, the giver always gets the ring back after a broken engagement.

The ring was a conditional gift with at-fault considerations

Several states, including Texas, embrace the idea of conditional gifts, but add a twist to protect the wronged party. In these states, if the ring giver is the one who ends the engagement, the giver has no right to get the ring back. If the recipient is found to be at fault, the court may order return of the ring. In other words, the person dumped gets the ring.

The ring was an outright gift

In a few states, the engagement ring is considered an unconditional gift that can’t be revoked. The court may require that the recipient prove that the ring was intended as a gift and that both parties understood it as such. Bottom line: once a gift, always a gift.

Other factors, such as the ring being a family heirloom, or whether the ring was a gift on a gift-giving holiday like a birthday or Christmas, can sway the court’s decision regardless of state law.

Complicated? You bet. Especially if one party doesn’t follow the law and the case ends up in court. And in these days of social media, when agreements can be made or changed as fast as a text message, an entirely new complication can arise.

Case in point: Recently, a New York restaurateur proposed to his girlfriend with a $53,000 diamond ring as a small token of their engagement. His girlfriend took the ring, but refused to sign a prenup. The man broke off the engagement and demanded his ring back.

Since New York law states that an engagement ring is a gift conditioned on marriage, the ring should go back to the restaurateur. Except that the man broke the engagement via text message (!) and subsequently sent a text to the woman telling her she could keep the ring as a “parting gift” and use it to make a down payment on a house. Later, on second thought, he said he was only joking and wanted the ring back.

The court ruled that the text message telling her to keep the ring essentially was a “regift” without the previous condition of marriage. She got to keep the ring – no joke. Seems that the social media guidelines we gave you for when the marriage breaks up apply to the engagement as well.

The law, especially where social media is concerned, will no-doubt continue to evolve. As with any relationship matter, consult your family law attorney for counsel.