Engagement Rings are Not Gifts
A couple becomes engaged very simply. One proposes to the other; the second person accepts. They are officially engaged.
They do not need to sign any documents, have their engagement notarized or entered into some court record, or even exchange gifts. If they do exchange some sort of present, in the United States, 75% of the engagements include a diamond ring.
But an engagement ring is not a gift.
Not all courts agree, so pay attention to your state’s laws. To most people—including court judges—an engagement ring is given with the implied condition of future marriage. Acceptance is akin to agreeing to a contract to wed. Refusal of the proposal means the ring remains the possession of the giver.
Who is At Fault?
Fault based states say that the person who terminates the engagement contract forfeits possession of the ring—or any such symbols of the contract. This is most commonly applied to cases where the donor (the person who gives the ring) presents the ring in good faith, but the donee (the person who accepts the ring) later rejects the wedding agreement and attempts to keep the ring.
However, some fault based states have probed further to assign fault not just to the person who calls off the engagement but to the reason for the engagement’s cessation. In a case where the donor broke off the engagement due to actions of the donee—perhaps some form of unfaithfulness—then the ring would be returned to the donor.
In no-fault based states, the ring is returned to the giver, regardless of who did what or why.
A sticky exception in some cases is the holiday-related engagement. Most gift-giving laws deem a gift properly given cannot be revoked by the giver. The person who has accepted the gift may do whatever he or she likes with it—including display it, treasure it, wear it, give it away, or smash it to smithereens. So, if the engagement ring was given in connection with a popular gift-giving event, for example, birthdays, Valentine’s Day, and Christmas, it could be considered a “gift” as opposed to a “conditional gift.” For this reason, it is important that any present made during the proposal be separated from holiday gift giving.
Returning the Family Heirloom
In one case of divorce for a Texas couple, the groom’s parents sued for the return of the diamond in the bride’s engagement ring. The diamond was a gift from the groom’s parents, from their personal collection, and they intended it as a conditional gift, as part of the wedding contract between their son and his now ex-wife.
In the case of family heirlooms, law should not be a deciding factor. Common civility requires the diamond or whole engagement ring be returned to the former owner—regardless of which side of the family provided it.