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Divorce | Family

Rings and Shared Property After a Broken Engagement

6 min read
Janet Wilkes, Attorney

by Janet Wilkes, Attorney

Before a wedding takes place, promises are made and an engagement ring is given in anticipation of the marriage. What happens to the ring if the engagement is broken? The answer to broken engagement legal issues depends on where you live. Each state has different answers about the definition of a gift and who is at fault for a breakup.

Different Types of Gifts in a Broken Engagement

There are two types of gifts laid out under state laws: unconditional and conditional. An engagement ring or other gift can fall under either category depending on the state in which laws apply, and the specifics of the gift itself.

Unconditional Gifts

An unconditional gift is one which is given without any kind of reasons, restrictions, or promises. There are three requirements to determine whether an engagement ring is an unconditional gift. The requirements are very general, and most gifts of any kind fall within this category.

  1. The giver must intend to give the engagement ring as a gift
  2. The giver actually gives the engagement ring to the receiver
  3. The receiver accepts the gift

There are only a few states which define a gift as unconditional. If your state is one of those few states with this law, the receiver does not have to give back the engagement ring to the giver if the engagement is broken – no matter who ended the engagement, the reason, or who is at fault. 

Conditional Gifts

Most states consider engagement rings to be conditional gifts. The engagement ring symbolizes the couple’s promise to marry each other. The engagement ring is also considered as a gift to the receiver of the ring in anticipation of getting married.

Conditional gifts depend upon the occurrence of a future event, such as a marriage. Generally in a conditional gift state, the receiver of the engagement ring must return the engagement ring to the giver.

If you do not know your state’s law regarding these types of gifts, you should contact a family law attorney who will be able to explain your state laws to you.

Does Fault Matter in Broken Engagements?

If the breakup is a mutual decision or for other personal decisions, fault is not an issue and the ring is returned to the giver. However, there are occasions in which fault is a very important part of the decision to break the engagement, such as children not getting along, religious differences, infidelity, and family hostilities. To determine who gets to keep the ring when there is fault, the gift must be a conditional gift and a person must prove the other was at fault.

Fault-Based Conditional Gift States

The fault-based approach can only be applied in conditional gift states. If fault is considered, the state is a “fault-based conditional gift” state. In these states, if the giver is at fault for the break-up, the receiver gets to keep the engagement ring. Conversely, if the receiver is at fault for the break-up, the receiver has to give the engagement ring back to the giver.

No-Fault Conditional Gift States

Most states adhere to a no-fault approach in determining which person can keep the engagement ring in a broken engagement. In a “no-fault conditional gift” state, an engagement ring must be returned to the giver if the engagement is broken. Fault is not an issue, and it does not matter which person ended the engagement or why.

Can You Sue for Breach of Promise to Marry?

Up until the mid-1800s, many women sued their former fiancés for breach of promise if the marriage did not occur. The court then had to determine if the damage to the women by the breach was bad enough for the woman to keep the engagement ring and to receive money from the fiancé. 

In modern times, a lawsuit under these circumstances would be a breach of contract instead of breach of promise. However, breach of contract rarely arises during broken engagements except in extraordinary circumstances. If a lawsuit is filed, the type of gift (conditional or unconditional) and fault will help to determine who keeps the engagement ring.

Preemptively Sorting Out Property With Your Partner

You and your partner can decide together what happens to the engagement ring in case your engagement is broken, instead of relying on the courts to sort things out. To do so, you should visit a family law attorney and request a ring contract which sets out what happens to the engagement ring or other property if your engagement is broken. This agreement can even cover what happens if the ring is lost or stolen (if not insured). Ring contracts are especially important if your ring has great sentimental or monetary value.

Other gifts given in anticipation of marriage can also be handled by written agreement prior to the marriage. Money loaned to your fiancé, promises by each person to pay certain debts or expenses, and property bought together prior to the marriage should all be addressed in a written agreement.

Another consideration to address by your written agreement is possible gift tax consequences. Depending on your financial condition and the value of the gift, you or your fiancé may have tax issues if the engagement is broken. 

Returning Rings After Marriage

Once you get married, then the condition of marriage has been met and the engagement ring will become the sole property of the receiver. Wedding rings are also not considered marital property in a divorce and will be kept by their owner.

If you wish to ensure that you and your fiancé agree on what happens to the engagement ring and other gifts after marriage, the time to set those agreements is prior to the marriage with written prenuptial agreements.

Unwinding Property Before a Marriage Occurs

Sometimes a couple will purchase property together before the marriage, such as homes, vehicles, and furniture. An engagement break-up can have a big impact on these purchases and debts. 

Since the marriage has not taken place, divorce laws in the division of property do not apply. Instead, the law basically treats the couple as roommates. Any property purchased will be owned by the original purchaser.

If you purchased property jointly and you financed the purchase, both still have a duty to pay the debt until paid in full. This also applies if you incurred other joint debts, such as credit cards and unsecured loans. Joint debts can result in years of payments after the end of the relationship. 

Disagreements about who is responsible for payments and ownership of property can even end up in court battles. You should consider outline addressing the division of property and debts if a relationship ends before marriage in a ring agreement, property settlement agreement or cohabitation agreement.

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