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Jeff Hampton
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March 08, 2017

Who gets the engagement ring after a breakup?

Calling off a wedding usually involves more than just hurt feelings. Even if the breakup happens before you put down a deposit on the venue, flowers, and photographer, there’s still the age-old question of who gets the engagement ring. And they aren’t cheap: the average engagement ring cost $5,855 in 2014, according to a study by TheKnot.com.

So what does etiquette require? We’re a polite bunch of people here at Quilt, but we aren’t the final authority on manners, so we turned to the experts. According to the Emily Post Institute, the polite thing to do is return the ring, no matter who broke off the engagement or for what reason. Why? Because the ring is a symbol of the promise to marry, and doesn’t become a gift until the wedding takes place.

“The ring is a symbol, not a gift, during the engagement. When the engagement ends, the ring goes back.”

That’s what politeness dictates, but of course good manners aren’t a legal requirement. In a Venn diagram of etiquette and the law, the circles rarely overlap. So what do courts have to say on the matter?

Typically, once a gift is given and accepted, the transfer of property is complete. You wouldn’t, for example, have a legal right to demand your significant other give back the Keurig you bought them three birthdays ago. But engagement rings are different. In almost every state in the country, they belong to a special class known as “conditional gifts,” which are just presents that come with strings attached.

You’ll see conditional gifts come up most often in wills. A grandchild may get an inheritance, but only if they’ve graduated college by a certain age, for example, or real estate may be left to the city on the condition that it’s used as a public park.

With engagement rings, the condition is marriage. Once the wedding takes place, the ring belongs to the recipient fair and square. But when things go south before the ceremony, there are two main approaches states use to determine ownership.

The no-fault approach

In the 1993 case Lindh v. Surman, a man dumped his fiancée because he “no longer loved her.” She still loved the engagement ring though, so she refused to give it back after the wedding was canceled. He sued, and the case reached all the way to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

His argument was that because rings are conditional gifts, and the wedding never happened, it still belonged to him. His ex-fiancee believed that because she had been willing to go through with the marriage, it was his fault that the wedding didn’t take place and she was entitled to keep the ring.

After wrestling with the issue, the court found that determining who was truly “at fault” for a breakup leads to needless animosity, and is often impossible anyway. As a result, they ruled that if the wedding doesn’t happen, the ring gets returned. No matter what.

This is called the “no-fault” approach, and it’s becoming more and more common. Along with Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Illinois, and many more take the no-fault view towards engagement rings. (If you’d like to know the laws where you live, there’s a full state-by-state listing of all the statues and case law we could find at the bottom of this post.)

The fault-based approach

Of course, it’s not always so clear-cut. Some states, like Texas, Florida, Colorado, and more use a fault-based approach, which makes finding out who gets the ring much more complicated. In these states, the ring is still a conditional gift, but the person it belongs to depends on who ended the engagement, and for what reason.

If the recipient called off the wedding – absent extenuating circumstances like cheating or fraud – or the breakup is mutual, then the ring goes back to the giver. But in cases where the person who gave the engagement ring calls off the wedding without a good reason, they’re out of luck in fault-based states. Here’s the New Jersey court’s take in Mate v. Abrahams:

“When … the giver of the ring, betokening his promise, violates his word, it would seem that a similar result should follow, i.e., he should lose, not gain, rights to the ring… How, on principle, can the courts aid him, under such circumstances, to regain a ring which he could not regain, had he kept his promise? No man should take advantage of his own wrong.”

TLDR:You don’t get to break a promise without suffering the consequences.

The fault approach is based in contract law, and it’s harsh, but not entirely unreasonable. The problem is that it’s hard to know exactly what constitutes a valid reason for ending an engagement, or just how bad your partner’s behavior has to be before the ring can be kept. It’s a judgment call, and will vary according to the facts of your case and the judge’s discretion, so it’s impossible to give a concrete answer ahead of time.

And as with everything in life, there are exceptions – even in states that treat engagement rings as conditional gifts that should be returned regardless of fault. If an engagement ring is given at Christmas or a birthday, for example, many courts will regard it as an absolute gift, rather than a conditional gift, meaning it belongs to the recipient the instant it’s given. Family heirlooms can also create special circumstances, and might even be recoverable by the giver after the wedding takes place.

Engagement ring laws by state

Want to know what the laws are where you live? All of the statutes and case law we could locate for each state are below, listed alphabetically.

Quick disclaimer: This information is for reference only, and isn’t intended as advice or a recommendation about your legal options or rights. If you’re in this situation, you should contact a lawyer.

Alabama

Alabama doesn’t seem to have any legal precedent on the subject. It’s almost certain that the state would treat engagement rings as conditional gifts, but as to whether they courts would take fault into account, it’s uncertain.

Alaska

We can’t find any Alaska statutes or case law on the return of an engagement ring, so it’s a bit of an unknown. It will be decided if and when a case goes to court.

Arizona

Surprisingly for a large and old state, Arizona doesn’t seem to have statutes or case law that directly applies to engagement rings, so you’ll have to take your chances in court.

Arkansas

It’s TBD. In a recent case in Faulkner County, the circuit court judge sided with the defendant, allowing her to keep the ring, but he stipulated that he wasn’t setting a precedent. (The case was decided on other factors. If you’re curious, you can read about them here.) It could still be reversed on appeal, or another court could rule differently given new circumstances.

California

California treats engagement rings as a conditional gift, but doesn’t take the no-fault approach that many other states do. Instead, the person who received the ring is entitled to keep it if the giver caused the marriage to be called off, but if the recipient calls off the wedding or the breakup is mutual, then the ring goes back to the giver. For those of you who speak Legalese, you can read all about it in Section 1590 of California’s civil code.

Colorado

Colorado treats engagement rings as conditional gifts, but there are some caveats. If the person who received the ring calls off the wedding, then it has to go back to the giver. On the other hand, if the giver calls off the wedding, then they’re out of luck. The person who received the ring may also be entitled to keep it if the breakup was the fault of the giver, but the case law is pretty murky when it comes to determining fault.

Connecticut

Connecticut treats engagement rings as conditional gifts, and doesn’t make exceptions or allowances for fault. Basically, if the wedding doesn’t happen – for whatever reason – the ring goes back to the giver.

Delaware

Delaware considers engagement rings to be conditional gifts, and uses a fault-based approach to determine ownership. If the recipient calls off the wedding without fault on the giver’s part, or the breakup is mutual, then the ring has to go back. But if the giver calls off the wedding and the recipient wasn’t at fault, then the ring is theirs.

Florida

Florida treats engagement rings as conditional gifts. The ring goes back to the giver if the breakup is mutual, or the recipient calls off the wedding. The giver might even be able to recover the ring after calling it off themselves, depending on the reason for the breakup. (Like catching them cheating, for example.)

Georgia

We couldn’t find any case law in Georgia, so it’s TBD. You’ll have to take your chances in court.

Hawaii

Hawaii doesn’t seem to have any precedent on the matter. It’s a purely no-fault state, so it’s probable that courts would treat engagement rings the same way. But absent specific case law, it’s far from certain.

Idaho

There don’t seem to be any statutes or precedent in Idaho case law. At least none that we could find. In all likelihood, courts would treat engagement rings as conditional gifts, but it’s hard to know whether fault would be considered or not.

Illinois

Illinois treats engagement rings as conditional gifts that must be returned regardless of who caused the marriage not to take place.

Indiana

In Indiana, engagement rings are conditional gifts that must be returned, without regard to fault.

Iowa

In Fierro v. Hoel, the Iowa Court of Appeals ruled that engagement rings are conditional upon the marriage taking place. If the wedding is called off, it goes back to the giver, irrespective of fault or reason.

Kansas

In Heiman v. Parrish, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that engagement rings are conditional by nature, and declined to consider fault. So if you live in Kansas, the ring has to go back to the giver.

Kentucky

In Kohen v. Sellar, the Kentucky Court of Appeals found that engagement rings are a conditional gift, and if the recipient calls off the marriage, then the ring must be returned. However, the case didn’t address what would happen if the giver ends the engagement, so it’s unclear what the judgement would be in that situation. Also, Kohen v. Sellar dates all the way back to 1926, so it may be time for a new case.

Louisiana

Louisiana regards engagement rings as conditional gifts, which only become absolute once the wedding takes place. We couldn’t find any reference to fault, but the Louisiana Court of Appeals’ finding in Busse v. Lambert implies that the reason doesn’t matter so much as the fact that the condition wasn’t met. Given that, it’s likely that Louisiana is a no-fault state, and the ring will pretty much always need to be returned.

Maine

Judging by the ruling in O’Brien v. Hudock, Maine is a fault-based state, but with a little twist. If the recipient breaks off the engagement without justification, the ring has to be returned, and if the giver calls off the wedding, the recipient can keep it. But unlike most other fault-based states, the recipient can also keep the ring in Maine if the breakup was mutual.

Massachusetts

Like almost all states, Massachusetts regards engagement rings as conditional gifts, but doesn’t take the modern no-fault approach. Who gets to keep the ring depends on who ended the engagement and why. In De Cicco v. Barker, the court found that if the recipient calls off the engagement without fault on the part of the giver, the ring has to be returned. And in Poirer v. Radd, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that the giver can recover the ring even after ending the engagement themselves, provided they can show the justification, such as improper behavior on the part of the recipient.

Michigan

Michigan’s Court of Appeals ruled in Meyer v. Mitnick that engagement rings are conditional gifts, and that fault is irrelevant, so the ring goes back to the giver pretty much no matter what.

Minnesota

In Minnesota, engagement rings are conditional gifts, and the law doesn’t take fault into account, so it must be returned.

Missouri

Missouri treats engagement rings as inherently conditional, but uses a fault-based approach when determining ownership. If the giver calls off the wedding, then it belongs to the recipient. (Provided the breakup wasn’t caused by the recipient’s bad behavior, like cheating or fraud.) Conversely, if the recipient calls off the wedding without justification, then the ring belongs to the giver. For more info, you can read the court’s decision in Clippard v. Pfefferkorn.

Montana

In Albinger v. Harris, the Montana Supreme Court ruled that engagement rings have “no implied or express condition,” so the giver loses any claim to the ring the instant it’s handed over. There is one caveat, though: if the ring was acquired through fraud or deceit, you can still sue for its return.

Nebraska

We’re still searching for any relevant case law on the topic in Nebraska, but nothing yet. It’s still a bit unknown.

Nevada

We can’t find any Nevada statutes or case law that address engagement rings specifically, but the majority of Nevada lawyers in legal forums seem to agree that engagement rings are a conditional gift. In addition, Nevada is purely no-fault when it comes to divorce, and a states tend to align their legal opinions on the return of an engagement ring with divorce laws. With that in mind, it’s likely the ring would need to be returned if the wedding doesn’t happen, regardless of the circumstances, but until a case reaches the courts, it’s far from certain.

New Hampshire

In the 1950 case Gikas v. Nicholis, the Supreme Court of New Hampshire found that when the recipient of the ring breaks the engagement, the ring must be returned, as it's considered unjust for a donee to retain the fruit of a broken promise. Based on this ruling, it seems that New Hampshire is a fault-based state, meaning who ended the engagement and why are relevant factors when deciding who gets to keep the ring.

New Jersey

New Jersey is a no-fault state, so the engagement ring goes back to the giver if the wedding doesn’t take place. The person who ended the engagement and the reason for the breakup are pretty much irrelevant.

New Mexico

In the 1994 case Vigil v. Haber, the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled that engagement rings are conditional gifts by nature, and that fault is immaterial. In short, if the wedding doesn’t happen, the ring goes back, regardless of who broke it off or why.

New York

New York treats engagement rings as conditional gifts, and doesn’t take fault into account. One caveat: if the giver was still married to someone else when giving the ring, then it’s the property of the recipient and can’t be recovered. (Best to wait until the divorce is final before proposing again.)

North Carolina

North Carolina follows the modern trend, regarding engagement rings as conditional gifts that must be returned if the wedding doesn’t take place, regardless of fault.

North Dakota

The most relevant case we could find in North Dakota was Kohler v. Flynn, argued before the state's Supreme Court in 1992. In the case, the court upheld the trial judge's ruling that the ring in question was an unconditional gift and did not need to be returned, although the facts of the case make not the best example. It's likely that in North Dakota, the recipient is entitled to keep the ring, but we aren't making an guarantees.

Ohio

In the 1984 case Lyle v. Durham, the Ohio Court of Appeals ruled that engagement rings are conditional gifts, and declined to consider fault as a relevant factor. That means that if the wedding is off, the ring gets returned.

Oklahoma

There are no statutes or relevant case law that we could locate for Oklahoma, so a case will have to work its way through the courts before there’s a definitive answer. Oklahoma changed to a no-fault divorce system in the 70s, so it’s probable that courts would take the same view of engagement rings, but not definite.

Oregon

Other than Ewing v. Harrison, which is largely irrelevant, engagement rings don't appear much in Oregon case law. It's almost certain that they're regarded as conditional gifts, but whether the courts would apply fault or not is anyone's guess.

Pennsylvania

In the 1999 case Lindh v. Surman, the state’s Supreme Court ruled that finding who was “at fault” in a breakup is often fruitless, deciding on a no-fault approach. If you don’t get married – for whatever reason – the engagement ring has to be returned.

Rhode Island

In Rhode Island, the giver can reclaim the ring, but only if the recipient was at fault for the wedding not taking place.

South Carolina

The South Carolina Court of Appeals ruled on engagement rings in the 2012 case Campbell v. Robinson. Even though Matthew Campbell didn't recover the ring he engagement ring he gave to his ex-fiancee, the court's opinion makes it clear that they favor a no-fault approach. It's confusing, but based on the write-up, the ring should go back to the giver in almost all circumstances.

Tennessee

In the 2007 case Crippen v. Campbell, the Tennessee Court of Appeals took the modern no-fault approach towards the return of engagement rings. No matter what the reason, if the wedding doesn't materialize, then the ring must be returned to the giver.

Texas

In Curtis v. Anderson, the Texas Court of Appeals decided to take a fault-based approach to engagement rings. According to the ruling, if the recipient breaks the engagement or is otherwise at fault, then the ring must be returned. But if the giver breaks it off without justification, then the recipient gets to keep the ring.

Utah

The case we could find that most closely addressed engagement rings is Hess v. Johnson, from 2007. In the case, the fiance purchased several items (including a vasectomy) with the expectation of a marriage, then sued when the wedding never materialized. The court considers the conditional gift argument, but doesn't actually make a ruling that would apply to an engagement ring. Long story short, it's still an unknown.

Vermont

As Fullerton v. Amblo makes clear, Vermont considers engagement rings to be conditional gifts, but we couldn't locate any case law or statutes that definitively state whether it's a fault or no-fault state. It usually aligns with divorce policy, so if a state has no-fault divorce, then courts are unlikely to assign blame in a breakup before the wedding. Vermont has both fault and no-fault divorces though, so we honestly have no idea.

Virginia

In one of the more expensive cases on record, NFL star Laveranues Coles gave his fiancée an engagement ring worth over $240,000, which she kept after leaving him for someone else. He sued and won at trial, which she’s appealing. Stay tuned for further details.

Washington

The Washington Court of Appeals decided on a partially fault-based approach in Spinnell v. Quigley. If the recipient calls off the wedding or if the breakup is mutual, the ring has to be returned. The only way the recipient can keep the ring is if the giver breaks things off without justification.

Wisconsin

In Brown v. Thomas, Wisconsin’s Court of Appeals found that engagement rings are conditional gifts by their nature, and decided to take a no-fault approach, in line with the state’s no-fault divorce policy. So if the wedding doesn’t happen, the ring must be returned.

Wyoming

There’s no case law on the topic in Wyoming that we could find, which isn’t surprising for a state with such a small population. We won’t know for sure until a suit reaches the Court of Appeals.

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