This is a question I was once asked from a jilted bride-to-be. I assumed, with the confidence and arrogance that only a law degree from a regional university can give you, that the answer would be ‘Yes, you can legally keep the ring if your engagement ends, but that’s a pretty shitty thing to do’ and promptly told the lovely lady my thoughts on this subject.
Then, after I did some proper research on the subject, I realised how wrong I was. My investigations into this engagement ring question led me down a dark path, which ended in a land where romance, love, and a moral sense of right and wrong were not welcome.
Let’s take a step back, though. Most of the time, there is no need for the law to get involved when an engagement between two former lovers comes to a premature end. The couple decide not to continue their relationship, and the woman returns the engagement ring to the man. They wish each other well, post passive-aggressive comments about each other on social media, have a bit of ex-sex on one or two occasions, and then move on with their respective lives.
But what if the woman refuses to return the ring once the engagement ends? Can the man seek a court order that would legally require the woman to return the ring?
Yes, he can. There is a surprisingly large number of court cases where a man has succeeded in getting a judge to grant an order requiring a former fiancé to return the engagement ring to the man, or face fines or even jail time if she refuses.
All successful (well, from the man’s perspective) cases in this area are based in contract law. Without boring you with the details of how these laws work (or don’t work), the concept is that an unwritten contract is made between the man and the woman when they get engaged. The courts have found that one of the terms of that unwritten contract is that when the man gives an engagement ring to the woman it is done on the condition that they eventually get married. If the marriage does not happen the part of the unwritten contract that allows the woman to keep the ring is no longer valid, and the woman has no legal right to keep the ring.
This makes an engagement ring something like a deposit for a future marriage. The full, unrestricted ownership of the ring only passes from the man to the woman once they are finally and legally married.
My female readers might think that this is a very unfair outcome that favours the man, and they would be right. What if the man was the one who broke things off? What if he cheated on the woman, or did something else equally despicable that was the cause for the end of the engagement? Why is he still allowed to request the ring back in those sort of circumstances, and why does the law support his request?
Let’s look at a less terrible example, to calm down for a moment. What if the man and woman simply decided to go their separate ways, without blame or fault, and the man was happy for the woman to keep the ring. Would the woman still be entitled to keep the engagement ring if the man later changed his mind and asked for it back?
The answer depends on how the man asked for the return of the ring, and when he asked for it.
The woman is usually entitled to keep the ring if she gives ‘reasonable notice’ to the man, telling him she intends to keep it. If the man does not then ask for its return, or expressly says that he does not want it to be returned to him, then the ring is hers to have and to hold. If the man later changes his mind, and asks for the ring back, he has very little chance of success, even if he took the matter to court.
Now, just for fun, let’s see how this sort of situation all plays out in the real world. In 2007, one Mr Papathanasopoulos and one almost Mrs Papathanasopoulos were engaged to be married. Shortly after the engagement, the couple fought and, like the song goes, called the whole thing off.
There was then a disagreement between the couple as to the facts of what happened next. The bride-to-be argued that she tried to return the ring to her would-be husband, but he told her it was a gift and she could keep it. The woman then threw the ring – all $15,000 of it – in the garbage.
When the woman told the man what she had done with the ring, he sued the woman for the full $15,000 replacement value, like a gentleman. He argued in court that he was never given the opportunity to get the ring back once his former fiancé decided she was going to quite literally trash it, even though he had previously told her the ring was hers to keep.
The court decided that the woman had a legal obligation to give the man notice of her intention to throw the ring away despite the man having told her she could keep it. The court also said she had to give him a reasonable time to come and collect it, before chucking it. The court finished its decision by saying that the woman was required to pay the man the replacement cost of the ring.
See how romantic the law can be? I completely understand if you need to go watch a romantic comedy movie like Die Hard to remind yourself what love is all about.