Engagement and marriage are very joyous times, and although no one ever anticipates the premature end of their marriage or engagement, the reality is that not all marriages or engagementscontinue happily ever after. One common question that individuals have regarding family law is what happens to the engagement rings if the marriage or the engagement does go awry. Who gets to keep the ring: the man who likely purchased it, or the woman who it was given to? Many courts throughout the nation have considered this very question, and those courts have reachedvarying decisions. Despite the differences, one major theme is present, engagement rings are gifts. The only real question is whether the gift will be viewed as a completed gift or as aconditional gift by the court.
Courts generally treat the engagement ring as a gift, from the donor (the person who gave the ring) to the donee (the person who received it). In order for a gift to be deemed a legally completegift, three elements must be present: 1) the donor must intend to give the ring as a gift, 2) the donor must deliver the ring to the donee, and 3) the done must accept the ring. If the person towhom the ring was given can show all three elements, a court will consider the ring to be a gift to him or her.
But the majority of courts also consider such a gift to be a conditional one. That means that, until some future event occurs, the gift is not final. If that event does not occur, the donor hasthe right to get the gift back.
Women who want to keep their engagement rings often argue that the condition needed to make the engagement ring a completed gift is simply the acceptance of the proposal of marriage, not thecompletion of the marriage ceremony. That way, if the engagement is broken, the ring remains her property.
But this argument often is not successful. The majority of courts find that the gift of an engagement ring contains an implied condition of marriage. Acceptance of the proposal is not theunderlying “deal,” the marriage is. Absent some other understanding or circumstance, for example, if the ring was given as a memento of a shared memory or experience or if the ring wasgiven to celebrate a holiday or special occasion, most courts look at engagement rings as conditional gifts given in contemplation of marriage. However, as mentioned earlier, some states havecome down on the opposite side of this fence, rejecting the conditional gift theory and declaring that an engagement ring is an unconditional, completed gift and that’s that. Thus, it isimportant to seek the advice of a knowledgeable family law attorney in your state to determine what rights you have regarding an engagement ring, regardless of whether you are the donor or thedonee.
After the Marriage
After the marriage has occurred, the question of who gets to keep the ring becomes much simpler. Upon marriage, the ring is considered the property of the recipient. Even if the ring could havebeen viewed by a court as conditional initially, the condition of marriage is now met. In most states, rings are also considered the separate property of the recipient, not marital property,because the gift was made prior to marriage. Only via an agreement, like a premarital or settlement agreement, may a donor obtain possession of the ring upon divorce.
By A. Latrese Martin, Associate Attorney, Meriwether & Tharp, LLC