What is the legal difference between gifts and conditional gifts?
A gift is generally considered the property of the recipient, even if the giver and recipient part ways. Most gifts are not given with any promise attached to them. In legal terms, this is called an "unconditional gift." This is not the case with engagement rings, which are given with a promise.
Because of the unique nature of engagement rings and what they symbolize, very few states view engagement rings as unconditional gifts. Although the condition of marriage is typically implied, most states consider the engagement ring a "conditional gift." Conditional gifts have different rules—and legal interpretations—than other types of gifts.
In most states where engagement rings are considered conditional gifts, the recipient remains the owner of the ring only if the condition of marriage is met. In most cases, the ring goes back to the purchaser if the couple breaks up.
How does the nature of the breakup affect who gets to keep the engagement ring?
In some states, the nature of the breakup can impact who gets to keep the ring. In these cases, the person who breaks the engagement cannot keep the engagement ring. In this way, these states treat the engagement ring like a contract, and the person who is guilty of breaching the contract would have to relinquish the ring to the other person.
What is the difference between fault-based and no-fault approaches to deciding who gets to keep the engagement ring?
The question of who keeps the engagement ring if the wedding is called off is sometimes couched in the terms "fault-based" vs. "no-fault based," which adds another layer to the concept of a conditional gift.
A fault-based approach to determining the answer to this question states that the person who broke the engagement shouldn't be allowed to keep the engagement ring. Thus, the person at fault, or the person who broke the engagement, has to give the ring back to the other person. If the state and court use a fault-based approach, the giver is not entitled to get the ring back if they were the one who ended the relationship, even if the state also uses a conditional gift approach to engagement rings.
A no-fault approach states that it doesn't matter who broke the engagement. In these cases, the giver gets the ring back, regardless of who ended the engagement. Typically, the only states where a no-fault approach does not lead to the giver getting the ring back is if the ring was considered an unconditional gift.
How do courts typically decide who owns the engagement ring if things don't work out?
Courts usually reference state laws and past court cases to determine who owns the engagement ring after a breakup. Because there is so much variety from state to state and from court to court, the question can be a bit complicated. If the couple has a signed Prenuptial Agreement, the answer may be clearly stated in that document.
For most couples, this is never a question. They start their wedding planning and move forward to the wedding, at which point the wedding ring becomes part of the marital property. But for those who decide to call the whole thing off, knowing what may or may not happen can help them make the right choices about their breakup (and the ring).
Get answers to your marriage questions before tying the knot
While the prospect of marriage is joyous, it's important to remember that getting hitched is a huge commitment that has both legal and financial implications. When a wedding goes ahead as planned, the engagement ring becomes the first of many symbolic items defining the union. If you have legal questions about your engagement, wedding planning, marriage, or even divorce, be sure to ask a lawyer instead of just winging it.
This article contains general legal information and does not contain legal advice. Rocket Lawyer is not a law firm or a substitute for an attorney or law firm. The law is complex and changes often. For legal advice, please ask a lawyer.