Who gets to keep the engagement ring when the relationship fails?

An engagement ring often represents a serious financial and emotional investment on the part of a romantic couple. When the relationship falls apart, there can be a lot of anger and angst associated with that ring.

Perhaps in recognition of the uniqueness of that particular item, California also treats engagement rings somewhat uniquely under the law.

Normally, the ownership of an item passes from the giver to the recipient immediately. However, California law considers an engagement ring to be a conditional gift, given in return for the promise that the recipient will go through with a wedding. If the wedding doesn't take place, this condition is unmet. If it does, the ring transmutes into the recipient's private property.

So how does all this shake out in practical terms?

Assume that you are the person who proposed with the ring. If you never made it to the altar, the ownership of the ring depends, in part, on who called things off. If it was a mutual decision, the ring goes back to you. If, for some reason, your ex doesn't want to return the ring, you can get its fair market value.

If you and your intended split the cost of the ring, which is becoming increasingly common, then you only get back the fair market value of the percentage for which you paid.

If you broke off the engagement, however, and the other person didn't do anything that the court would consider drastic enough to be a good reason, the ring belongs to your ex. He or she wouldn't have to return it, due to apparently still being willing to fulfill the conditional promise.

If you were already married, however, when things fell apart, the law gets a little easier to follow. The ring became your intended's private property when he or she became your spouse.

This can still leave some sore feelings, however, especially if the marriage was of short duration or was a family heirloom.

Given how complicated the division of property actually can be, promptly seeking the advice of an attorney can avoid unpleasant conflicts and hopefully lead to an equitable solution. In the case of a family heirloom or a particularly pricey engagement ring, it might be smart to contact the attorney prior to the marriage in order to set down some additional conditions about its ownership.

Source: California Courts: The Judicial Branch Of California, "Property and Debt FAQs," accessed Nov. 23, 2016

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