Phillips & Ingrum

Rules of Engagement – Who Keeps the Ring if the Engagement is Broken?

By Grayson Cannon

The holiday season is a time when many people get engaged.  The traditional symbol of engagement is a diamond ring. This is often an expensive investment for the party purchasing it.  Sometimes, a family heirloom ring is given. But now the holiday lights and decorations are put away, and for some, the sparkle of love has already faded as well.  What happens when the happy couple (or one of them) realizes that marriage is not for them and wants to break things off?

Who has dibs on the engagement ring?

In most jurisdictions things like the source of the jewel, who decided to break things off, and the value of the ring have absolutely no bearing on what should happen.  Instead, most courts look to the law of gifts (yes, there is a body of law around the giving of gifts!) to decide what should happen to the ring when the ill-fated engagement ends.

A recent Virginia case involved a $26,000 engagement ring.  The husband to-be had given the bride-to-be the ring, but when he decided against her wishes to end the engagement, she decided she should not have to return the ring.  The Virginia Supreme Court ruled that she must return it.  The ring was what is known as a “conditional gift” – it was given only upon anticipation that the couple would eventually marry.  When the engagement ended the condition could not be fulfilled, and the jilted bride was obligated to return the ring.

What about engagements in Tennessee?

Tennessee law is quite similar.  In Crippen v. Campbell, a 2007 case from the Tennessee Court of Appeals’ Eastern Section, the Court considered cases from a number of other states. Crippen held that an engagement ring is a conditional gift, and must be returned if the marriage does not occur.  The Court considered whether the result should be different if the person who gave the ring was at fault for the failure of the engagement, but ultimately decided that did not matter.  The conditional nature of the gift meant that if the marriage did not occur for whatever reason, the giver of the ring was entitled to its return.

Is it different if the couple actually marries?

Yes! The Crippen Court also noted that once the marriage takes place the condition is met and the gift becomes absolute.  Consistent with this reasoning, Tennessee law provides that a person’s wedding jewelry is that person’s separate property, and cannot be awarded to the other spouse in a divorce.   So once the marriage has taken place, the giver is no longer entitled to the return of the ring even if the parties later divorce.

The lesson here is until the contemplated marriage actually happens, the wearer is just borrowing that lovely trinket and should be prepared to give it back if things go wrong.