Who Has Legal Right to the Engagement Ring in the Case of Divorce? October 26, 2019 – Posted in: Jewelry Blog

If things don’t work out, the courteous thing to do would be not even to mention the engagement ring in a divorce settlement. However, the husband may want to deprive the soon-to-be-ex of all the reminders of a failed marriage.

But does he have the legal right to do it? The answer to this question is not an outright yes or no, and it may depend on the circumstances that lead to the divorce. The following sections aim to give you a better understanding of who has the proprietary right to the ring and when it’s okay to ask it back.

Please Note: The information below is merely designed to familiarize our readers with the legality behind the engagement ring and divorce. If you want definitive answers, speak to a qualified divorce lawyer.

Who’s to Blame for the Divorce?

Couple Fighting over Engagement Ring

“First, the majority rule states that fault determines entitlement to a ring.” – Natalie Gregg, divorce lawyer, for HuffPost

Simply put, the ring belongs to the wife if the husband is to blame for the breakup and vice versa. With this in mind, the majority rule usually applies to the engagement period before the marriage. For example, if the future husband’s infidelity leads to the engagement breakup, the ring stays with the other party, even though he paid for the ring. But this is not the end of the story.

There is also the minority rule that doesn’t even consider fault in case of a breakup. This rule views the ring as a conditional gift – something you bestow upon the recipient. As this might sound confusing, it’s best to take a closer look at what the conditional gift is. 

Conditional Gift Disambiguated

A conditional gift is an item given on the premise that a future action or event is going to take place. In this case, marriage is the condition that needs to be met, and if it fails, the recipient (wife) needs to return the ring to the giver (husband).

As indicated, the law often doesn’t consider the at-fault party with the conditional gift approach, and this applies to most states. Case in point, if the future husband’s misconduct leads to the engagement breakup, he still gets the conditional gift (the ring) back.

“The gift is conditioned on marriage. In other words, the gift is not complete until marriage. If the relationship comes to an end before the couple gets married, the gift-giver is entitled to the ring.” Rosen Law Firm, North Carolina Divorce

Of course, there are exceptions. The state of Montana views the engagement ring as an unconditional gift. This means the item remains with the recipient and that it’s not subject to division.

Troubles in Paradise

Couple Divorcing

There are special conditions that may override the usual practices and rules. Most commonly, this happens when the engagement ring is a family heirloom or is given as compensation.

Family Heirloom

estate sapphire heirloom engagement ring

The engagement ring that has been passed on in the groom’s family is subject to legal discussion due to its unique properties. The husband/groom can request to have the ring returned even if the state laws recognize the item as a pre-marriage gift.

The court may require the husband to provide valid proof of ownership. Nevertheless, the ring usually gets back to the family in this case. The important thing is that the majority of states don’t consider inheritances as the property of the spouse who received the gift.

Engagement Ring as Compensation

It might be surprising, but the engagement ring may be viewed as compensation on the condition that both parties agree. For example, a future bride may donate her time and money to start a business with her future husband.

In compensation, the future husband bestows a valuable engagement ring. If the engagement or marriage is broken, the woman is entitled to the ring because it was part of the compensation. This may seem impossible to prove unless you have everything on paper. But, in some instances, a verbal agreement is superior to the written contract.

“… Recovery is based upon the universally recognized moral principle that one who has received a benefit has the duty to make the restitution when to retain such benefit would be unjust.”Sterling Law Offices, S.C, Wisconsin

When Did the Wife Receive the Ring?

proposing

A wife may claim the right to the ring if it has been given on a special date, stating that it’s an unconditional gift based on the unique occasion. This includes Valentine’s Day, birthdays, Christmas, or even anniversaries. And it might also apply in the states that recognize the engagement ring as a conditional gift.

That said, it’s important to make a legal distinction between engagement and marriage. Most courts consider the engagement ring as personal property once the couple is already married. But the ring may be viewed as a conditional gift during the engagement, regardless of the date it has been bestowed upon.

“Although there are cases in which the ring recipient would argue that accepting the proposal is enough to meet the condition, courts often lean more toward the final goal: the execution of getting married, not just to be engaged.”Sterling Law Offices, S.C, Wisconsin

Important Note

For example, there are only a handful of cases in the state of Colorado that involved conditional gifts. Plus, there are no reports that engagement rings were part of the legal dispute. However, the court may consider cases from other states to reach the settlement. A good example is the case of De Cicco v. Barker at the Massachusetts Supreme Court and the ruling was used in Colorado and some other states.

“An engagement ring is in the nature of a pledge, given on the implied condition that the marriage shall take place. If the contract to marry is terminated without fault on the part of the donor he may recover the ring.” – De Cicco v. Barker, 159 N.E.2d 534 (Mass. 1959)

To put it in plain English, an engagement ring is likely to go back to the giver if he is not to blame for the engagement breakup. On the other hand, if the parties are already married, the engagement ring is often personal property; therefore, it cannot be a part of the divorce settlement.

Separate v.s. Marital Property

So far, the article has dealt with states that consider engagement rings as separate property. To reiterate, the ring becomes the wife’s ownership after the couple gets married. It is considered a conditional gift and may return to the fiancee if the engagement breaks before the marriage.

“In states that adopt the conditional gift rule, after the marriage is official the gift is complete and it belongs to the person who received the ring. During equitable distribution, the court will grant the ring to the person who received it.”Rosen Law Firm, North Carolina Divorce

On the other hand, certain states consider the engagement ring as marital property. For example, the ring may become subject to a divorce settlement in North Carolina. But there is a catch. Being marital property, the ring doesn’t belong to either of the spouses.

This means that no one gets to keep the ring unless otherwise agreed upon. The ring is to be appraised and equally apportioned among the spouses. Interestingly, most courts accept that the ring is worth about two-months’ salary if there is no appraisal.

Be that as it may, the wife has an option to keep the ring in her possession. Following the rule of equal division, she then needs to give up assets or property that’s worth as much as the ring.

Quick Recap

Modern Wedding Switching Rings

If it comes to a divorce, the engagement ring can either be considered as personal or marital property. This depends on the state laws, and the general rule is that personal property doesn’t get divided during the divorce.

Except for North Carolina and some other states, the ring isn’t marital property. The rule generally applies to the states that recognize an engagement ring as a conditional gift. Since marriage was the condition to be met, the ring belongs to the recipient the moment the two parties tie the knot.

“If a couple is already married, and the marriage ends in dissolution, the spouses have each “earned” the right to their rings (engagement and wedding bands).”Carl O. Graham, family law attorney, Colorado Family Law Guide.

This is one of the reasons the engagement ring is rarely brought up during the divorce. But the situation is quite different if the breakup happens before marriage. In this case, the legal rights may depend on the state of residence, the party that broke the engagement, and the breakup conditions.

The state laws seem to be the key to ownership when an engagement breaks and there are three options. The ring needs to be returned, may be kept, and can always be kept. Here is the list of states. 

  1. Must Be Returned – Iowa, Florida, Kansas, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, New Mexico, Minnesota, Michigan
  2. May Be Kept – California, Texas, Washington
  3. Can Always Be Kept – Montana

Not Happily Ever After

In all fairness, the engagement ring is often only a fraction of the divorce settlement, and spouses don’t usually haggle over it. However, if the ring’s price tag has two or three commas, it’s likely to come up in the dispute.

There is always an option to define the ring’s ownership with a prenuptial agreement and cover all the loose ends. But do you really want to do it? After all, the ring is a gift you offer based on emotions as well as reasonings, and if it turns out your rationale is faulty, let them have the ring.