My Wedding Is Off. Who Gets to Keep the Engagement Ring?

Charlotte Divorce Attorney Matthew R. Arnold of Arnold & Smith, PLLC answers the question ” I’m not getting along with my husband. We’ve been married two weeks and it was a mistake. Can’t I just get an annulment?”


Societal tradition suggests spending three months’ salary on an engagement ring. WeddingWire just released its 2015 Newlywed Report indicating that the average cost of an engagement ring is $4,758—not cheap. In the event of a broken engagement, either party could probably think of plenty of other uses for the value of such an expensive asset. Further complicating matters can be if the ring is a family heirloom.

Engagement ring charlotte divorce lawyer North Carolina Family attorneyPeople often follow the conventional etiquette that a woman returns the ring if she is the one to break off the wedding, but keeps it if the fiancé makes the break. If former partners can’t agree on who should keep the ring or rings, there are large differences between custom and law on the issue.

Entitlement to an engagement ring falls under family, contract and property law. An engagement is by nature a gift, which under property law has three general requirements:

  1. The giver must have intended to give the item as a gift
  2. The giver actually gives the gift to the recipient
  3. The recipient accepts the gift.

Once these three requirements are met, a gift normally cannot be revoked. That is, if Harry gives Sally a necklace but immediately regrets his decision after she accepts, she does not have to give it back.

However, an engagement ring is not your average gift. It must also be given in contemplation of marriage. A fairly recent New York court case from 2014 best illustrates this requirement. A judge ruled that a woman who broke up with her boyfriend could keep a $10,000 ring because her beau didn’t pop the question when he gave it to her. When he gave her the ring he said it was a gift for being a “great woman” and good mother. The boyfriend sued for the ring after they broke up but the couple was unclear or not on whether or not they had actually been engaged. So, the court ruled he was not entitled to recovery of the ring because the ring was otherwise a simple gift, which does not have to be returned.

When a ring is given can be a factor in this analysis. If an “engagement” ring is given on a holiday such as Valentine’s Day, Christmas or a birthday, courts are more likely to consider it a simple gift. This means it is not conditional or rescindable.

Assuming a ring was given in contemplation of marriage, a majority of courts, including North Carolina’s, consider an engagement ring an “implied conditional gift.” This means that if the condition of marriage never happens, the giver is entitled to recovery of the engagement ring, regardless of whose fault it is that the engagement ended. This methodology is similar to North Carolina’s no-fault divorce approach, which is much more straightforward and clean-cut than states that allow fault to be discussed. Family law is already full of uncomfortable topics and personal matters in which courts can be hesitant to involve themselves.

Not all courts, however. Other states still use a fault-based analysis of who gets to keep an engagement ring. If the recipient of the ring was the party who broke off the engagement, they must return it to the giver.

Finally, Montana is the only state to still classify an engagement ring as an “unconditional gift” that cannot be taken back from the recipient no matter what.

While it may seem slightly callous to focus on bling instead of a broken heart, taking care of practical property division issues after a broken engagement can be empowering and forward-propelling.

If you are involved in a custody issue where you think the other parent or stepparent is alienating your child from you, it is important for you to have a skilled family law attorney in Charlotte, North Carolina who can help guide you through the often confusing process of divorce. Please contact Arnold & Smith, PLLC today at (704) 370-2828 or find additional resources here.


About the Author

ARNOLD & SMITH LAWMatthew Arnold is a Managing Member of Arnold & Smith, PLLC, where he focuses on the areas of family law, divorce, child custody, child support, alimony and equitable distribution.

Mr. Arnold was raised in Charlotte, where he graduated from Providence Senior High School. He attended Belmont Abbey College, where he graduated cum laude, before attending law school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on a full academic scholarship.

A certified Family-Law Specialist, Mr. Arnold is admitted to practice in all state and administrative courts in North Carolina, before the United States District Court for the Western District of North Carolina, and before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia.

In his free time, Mr. Arnold enjoys golfing and spending time with his wife and three children.






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