There is no doubt that going through divorce is a difficult process. It wears you down financially, emotionally and physically. A common area of contention in divorce is the very symbol of the marriage itself – the engagement ring. A symbol of the excitement of what the future may hold now becomes a painful reminder of the past.
In 2018, Business Insider reported that American men spent an average of $6,351 on an engagement ring. With the CDC reporting over 2 million marriages and 800,000 divorces per year in the United States alone, many individuals wonder what to do with the ring upon divorce.
Regardless of any sentimental value, the engagement ring is by itself best treated as an asset – and a costly one at that. Like all assets, the engagement ring is one that must be dealt with upon divorce.
Be it a separation over an unfaithful spouse, mutual disinterest, or simply for economic reasons, one question remains pertinent – who gets the engagement ring after divorce?
What the Engagement Ring Means
Although marriage has changed significantly since the outset of the engagement ring, the meaning behind the ring has remained largely the same. Scholars have postulated different and distinct meanings of the engagement ring that reveal ancient ideological values of marriage. These ideological values have survived to the present day in some shape or form, but one question remains – is the engagement ring merely a gift, is it is a symbol of love or is it representative of some type of legally binding agreement?
At its outset, scholars believed that the imagery of clasped hands often engraved onto ancient Roman wedding rings invoked the idea of a marital agreement. They also believed that the groom may have offered the engagement ring as a gift to embody the agreement of marriage and the additional responsibilities that come with it. In many ancient societies, the imagery symbolizes both a bond during life and a farewell in death – reminiscent of the poignant vow “until death do us part,” similar to that of modern society.
Who Should Keep the Ring?
Most states treat the engagement ring as a “conditional gift,” meaning that the receiving party is allowed to keep the ring on the condition that the marriage occurs. Should the marriage not occur, the receiving party must return the ring. States that abide by this rule include Iowa, Florida, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
In the state of Montana, engagement rings are treated as “unconditional gifts,” meaning that the receiving party will be allowed to keep the ring no matter what.
In California, Texas, and Washington, the engagement ring is treated as an “implied conditional gift.” Simply put, if a party backs out of the wedding, then the non-backing party can keep the ring.
More specifically in California, Civil Code Chapter 3 Section 1590 provides that “where either party to a contemplated marriage in this State makes a gift of money or property to the other on the basis or assumption that the marriage will take place, in the event that the [receiver] refuses to enter into the marriage as contemplated or that it is given up by mutual consent, the [giver] may recover such gift or such part of its value as may, under all of the circumstances of the case, be found by a court or jury to be just.”
The California statute states that any gift made in anticipation of marriage can be recovered by the giver in the event that the receiver no longer wants to become married, or both parties agree to no longer getting married. Thus, if we consider the engagement ring a gift, this statute would entitle a groom to recover his engagement ring if his fiancée backs out of the engagement, or if they no longer agree to get married.
On the other hand, the landmark case of Simonian v. Donoian set a precedent that allows the receiver of the gift to keep that gift if the wedding is called off by the giver. The California Court of Appeals found that “the clear meaning of [Section 1590] is that the [receiver] of an engagement ring is entitled to retain possession thereof when the marriage contract is breached by the [giver] without any fault on [receiver’s] part.” Thus, a fiancée would be entitled to retain possession of the engagement ring if the groom calls off the wedding unilaterally.
Additionally, engagement rings are sometimes considered to be a family heirloom. The Court of Appeals of Oregon found in the case of In re: Domestic Partnership of Ewing that the giver of a family heirloom ring was entitled to receive that ring back after separation. However, it is always highly advised that future husbands and wives draft a prenuptial agreement when a family heirloom is involved.
The law can be unclear on who gets the engagement ring if the marriage is terminated at the fault of a giving party’s actions, such as an affair. There are arguments yet to be explored – the existence of common law marriage and contractual marriage lend credence to the notion that the engagement ring can symbolize some type of agreement, just as it did with the ancient Romans.