Engagement Ring Laws by State

When two people get engaged, it is with the intention that they will get married and spend the rest of their lives together. Sadly, this isn’t always the case. Broken engagements occur frequently, and it can be an extremely difficult and emotionally upsetting time for both parties involved. On top of these mental difficulties, there is also the question of who keeps the engagement ring following the separation. Some couples can work this out amicably, whereas others need to rely on engagement ring laws to help decide which individual keeps the ring.

In this article, we look at the engagement ring laws by state and examine who is legally entitled to keep the ring if the wedding is called off. As you’ll discover, many courts have different beliefs on this matter.

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What Happens to the Engagement Ring in a Broken Engagement?

In a broken engagement, one person is permitted to keep the ring. If the separation is amicable, the pair may come to a mutual agreement between themselves regarding who keeps it. There is no law in place saying either the giver or the receiver must keep it; if the couple can come to a decision amicably, then so be it. However, many broken engagements do not end on good terms. In these cases, there might be conflict over who keeps the ring. Where this cannot be decided privately, the couple may turn to the courts for assistance. The courts will then legally decide who is entitled to keep the engagement ring.

To help the courts reach an appropriate outcome, there are engagement ring laws in place. A primary consideration is what type of gift the engagement ring is legally defined as. Once this determination has been made, which is done on a case-by-case basis, a decision on what happens to the ring is made. In some cases, the courts will also consider why the relationship has come to an end and who, if anyone, is responsible when choosing the best course of action.  

Who Keeps the Engagement Ring?

According to engagement ring laws, it’s crucial for the court to determine how the ring is classified. Legally, the engagement ring will either be classified as (1) an outright or unconditional gift, or (2) a conditional gift. Let’s take a look at when a ring is considered an unconditional gift versus a conditional gift.

Engagement Rings as Unconditional Gifts

When an engagement ring is given as an outright gift, this legally means that the recipient gets to keep the ring regardless of whether the marriage takes place. According to the return of engagement ring law, the ring has to meet three criteria to be considered an outright gift. These three criteria are as follows:

  1. The giver wholly intended to give the ring to the recipient as a gift;
  2. The giver carried out the act of giving the gift to the recipient; and
  3. The recipient accepting the engagement ring.

As a general rule, when the above conditions are met and the ring is considered by the courts to be an outright gift, it is usually understood that the receiver gets to keep the engagement ring. The owner of the ring is left unchanged even if the wedding is called off. This is true even in cases in which the ring has been revoked.  However, very few US states view engagement rings as unconditional gifts. Montana appears to be the exception. In the Treasure State, the recipient always gets to keep the ring, regardless of who broke the engagement.

Engagement Rings as Conditional Gifts

On the other hand, a conditional gift is given with the intention that the recipient can keep it so long as they fulfill a future condition. One of the most basic examples of this is a trust fund for a child. This is usually set up by a family member and given to the child once they turn eighteen. Although the money is intended for them, it is not truly theirs until they meet the condition set – they turn 18. After this condition is met, the giver can no longer reclaim the funds in the trust as theirs.

The example of a trust fund is easy to follow. However, in the case of engagement rings, there is some disparity between what condition needs to be met. It is not clearly stated in the engagement ring laws and thus is open to interpretation. As such, some US states view the future condition as marriage, whereas others see it as saying “yes” to the proposal. 

·         Completion of the Marriage: Some courts view the condition that needs to be met as marriage. In other words, the ring is only given to the recipient to keep if they follow through with the wedding. In these cases, the giver will be legally entitled to keep the engagement ring in the case of a broken engagement.

·         “Yes” to the Proposal: Some courts view saying “yes” to the proposal as the condition that needs to be met. In other words, agreeing to marry the giver is sufficient to make the ring legally theirs. In these cases, the receiver will be legally entitled to keep the engagement ring in the case of a broken engagement.

Almost every court in the US will agree that marriage is the condition that needs to be met. This means in nearly every broken engagement case taken to court, the receiver will legally have to give the ring back to the giver. There are a few rare cases in which agreeing to the proposal is sufficient, but this is unusual.

Do You Legally Have to Give an Engagement Ring Back?

If the case regarding your engagement ring ends up in court and the court rules that you are legally required to return the engagement ring, then you must do so. This occurs in almost all cases. With the exception of Montana, engagement ring law classifies the ring as a conditional gift with the condition being you must actually get married to be entitled to keep the ring. 

However, engagement ring laws do vary slightly by state, and some states also consider who called off the wedding when deciding who should keep the ring. These states are Alabama, Alaska, Kentucky, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire; they are known as “fault” states. In these states, whoever called off the wedding forfeits the ring, even if they were the giver. In these cases, the receiver won’t have to give the ring back.

Nevertheless, the majority of US states take a “no-fault” approach, meaning the giver keeps the engagement ring regardless of who backed out of the marriage. Most states seem to prefer this approach, as some engagements end mutually or due to personal issues, such as religious differences, pets that don’t get along, or hostility towards children. Previous cases such as these set legal precedents, as judges believed that the person who breaks the engagement shouldn’t be punished by being forced to hand the ring over. As such, the “no-fault” approach is now widely accepted in most of the US.

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Return of engagement ring law is important when handling disputes between two people over who keeps the ring in a broken engagement. In the majority of cases, the giver has the right to keep the ring. However, some states work on a “fault” approach and allow whoever was not responsible for the relationship ending to keep the ring. On the other hand, Montana always permits the receiver to keep the ring.

As there is a disparity between states, it is recommended to consult with an attorney with knowledge on engagement ring laws if you and your ex-partner are arguing over who keeps the ring. They can give you advice on the court’s likely ruling and your best course of action. 

Article by Mariia Synytska

Mariia Synytska is Content Lead at Lawrina, a legal portal that projects innovation in law. Mariia manages the content on the website, takes interviews with lawyers and law experts, and looks for the interesting topics for Lawrina's audience. If you would like to be a blogger for Lawrina, you can contact Mariia for all the details via email m.synytska@lawrina.com.

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