No one wants a broken engagement but it is a painful experience that some of us have to endure. Emotions aside, one question that arises in such situations is what happens to the engagement ring? There is no unanimity on the issue but some courts classify the engagement ring as a gift while others look at the reasons that resulted in the engagement being broken.
The three legal requirements of a gift are:
• Intention – the giver must have the intention to give the item to the recipient as a gift
• Giving – the giver must actually give the gift to the recipient
• Acceptance – the recipient must actually accept the gift.
In most of the cases that involved revoked gifts, the court has ruled the item to be a gift if the three legal requirements of a gift are present. The court allowed the recipient to retain the item.
While the general rule is that a gift cannot be revoked if the three legal requirements of a valid gift are present, conditional gift is an exception to this rule. So if the court determines that the engagement ring is a conditional gift, it must be returned. A gift given with the expectation and agreement of a future action taking place is a conditional gift. If the future action as agreed does not take place, the giver has all rights to get back the gift. Most courts tend to consider engagement rings as conditional gifts and hand them back to the giver in case of a broken engagement.
In some cases, the recipient will claim that the future event or condition was the acceptance of the proposal and that event has occurred. The engagement ring was a conditional gift – the condition being the acceptance of the proposal and the fact that the giver and the recipient were engaged is proof of the fact that the condition was met. Most courts reject this argument. Courts do not consider the engagement as the agreed future event. The marriage is the agreed future event. Therefore when the engagement is broken, the condition is not met and the giver is entitled to get back the engagement ring. Fault is not a consideration.
While many states including California have generally follow this method, Montana and a few other states consider the engagement ring as an unconditional gift and the recipient gets to keep it if the engagement is broken.
While the acceptance of the proposal does not qualify as the happening of the agreed event, in some cases, the ring is considered as compensation if both the parties clearly understand that the ring was given as compensation. For example in a case the woman gave money and even worked to develop the business of her fiancé and the fiancé gave the woman an expensive engagement ring, the court awarded the ring to the woman as compensation for the money and labor.
Some courts look at engagements and marriages as a contract. The ring symbolizes the planned marriage. A broken engagement like a broken contract signifies that the parties could not fulfill the terms of the contract and therefore both will be returned to their original position. So the giver will be given possession of the ring.
Sometimes the court will adopted a fault based approach and consider who is at fault for the broken engagement. If the recipient caused the breaking up of the engagement, the giver will be awarded possession of the engagement ring. Pavlicic v. Vogtsberger 136 A.2d 127, 130 (Penn. 1957) is a famous case wherein the court adopted a fault based approach. After the engagement, the man brought the woman a house, a couple of cares and an expensive diamond ring in expectation of the future marriage. The man also gave the woman $5000 as a loan for her business. She suddenly disappeared only to resurface later in another city where she had purchased a new business with the funds and had married someone else. The court ordered the woman to return all gifts as well as the engagement ring to the man.
Fault is generally not considered when deciding what happens to the engagement ring. Generally the relationship between the man and woman is considered as private and the court do not interfere in the relationship. The courts are least interested in what happens to the relationship as long as it does not break any law. So if the engagement is broken, the ring goes back to the giver, no matter who breaks the engagement and the reason for the broken engagement. This approach is similar to the no fault divorce wherein a person can get a divorce without having to prove fault of the other spouse. The family court is busy with the many cases involving family law. The last thing they want to do is determine who is a fault for a broken divorce. The court prefers not involve themselves in personal matters. Dealing with a broken engagement in the same way as a no fault divorce works best for the courts. This no-fault approach is now becoming increasingly common. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 1999 held that the ring should always go back to the giver. Wisconsin, New Mexico, New York, Iowa, New Jersey and Kansas have also followed suit. The Kansas Supreme Court in Heiman v. Parrish, 942 P.2d 631, 637 (Kan. 1997) held that why an engagement breaks is not the business of the court. The court listed many reasons why the engagement can end in an attempt to prove that the reasons for the engagement being broken are none of the court’s business. These reasons include:
• Lack of anything in common
• Unable to get along with the future in laws
• Hostile prospective step child (minor)
• Hostile adult step child unwilling to accept the new step parent
• Inability to stand the fiancé’s pet(s)
• Accepted the proposal without giving proper thought
• A rebound situation
• Fiancé’s untidy or bad habits
• Differences in religious beliefs
The courts prefer to keep themselves out of such issues just as they do in the case of no fault divorces as often the reason for the divorce is one of the above listed reasons. Different states have different approaches to what happens to the engagement ring in case of a divorce. Check with your state law.