I want my ring back! Should men get the ring back if the engagement is off?

Some couples rush into engagement and then discover that perhaps they are not ready to get married. Some couples are engaged and then have irreconcilable differences and break up. Just like in marriage, some partners have affairs or cheat on their fiance.

For whatever reason that it is, some couples end their engagements. While these couples are lucky that the marriage ended before it ever began, it still leaves the dilemma of what to do with the engagement ring.

- Most believe that the woman keeps it. Some women feel that the ring was given to them as a gift and that gifts are not to be taken away. They refuse to give up the ring.

- The woman does not want it. If the woman has bitter feelings toward the ex-fiance she may want no part of the ring.

- She gives it back. If the couple mutually ends the engagement on good terms, she may willingly give it back.

- If the two remain friends she may feel that returning the ring is the right thing to do. If she was the cause of the break up, she may feel bad about keeping the ring.

However, is the the meat of this discussion a simply YES the man gets the ring back? The man did pay for the ring? After the engagement is off the ring should not be a symbol anymore, so why does she need to keep it?

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Comment by Carlos on February 19, 2010 at 11:26pm
For all who are speaking through emotion this was an actual court case. read it and weep. because the decision was final.

Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2001

A fiance breaks off an engagement. Can he get the ring back?

This question is a perennial favorite for lawyers, and the answer is less simple than you might think. Indeed, just last month, a New York court decided a case, Marshall v. Cassano, that raises some new and interesting questions about the proper legal characterization of an engagement ring, and the appropriate rules governing its ownership.

The Marshall Case

In that case, John Marshall — while still married — gave another woman, Dolores Cassano, an $8,000 engagement ring. Dolores, in turn, promised to marry John when and if he became free to marry her. John did eventually get divorced, but shortly afterwards, he broke off his engagement to Dolores.

John and Dolores' breakup was messy. She sought and obtained an Order of Protection to prevent him from coming near her. He filed suit to recover the clothes and furnishings he had left at her house, as well as the engagement ring.

John ultimately got his clothes and furnishings back, but not his engagement ring. Why not? The answer lies in the sometimes complicated law of engagement rings.

A Contract Theory of Engagement Rings?

First of all, how should we characterize the act of giving an engagement ring? How we see this act will be crucial in determining when the ring should, and should not, have to be returned.

One could see the ring as "consideration" — a thing of value given in exchange to create a contract. But that raises a question: What, exactly, is the fiancee who accepts the ring giving in exchange?

One could say she is agreeing to an option contract. That is, with the ring, the fiance buys the right to marry his fiancee in the future. She, in turn, promises to marry him.

Characterizing the ring exchange as an option contract on the right to marry in the future suggests that the jilted bride should not have to give back the ring. After all, the ring-giver got what he paid for — the option to marry a particular woman. He just chose not to exercise that option. And she made good on her promise to marry by remaining open to the possibility (i.e. not running off and marrying someone else in the interim); she was not the one who broke off the engagement.

On the other hand, if the fiancee dumps the ring-giver, then on this theory, the jilted groom should get his ring back (or get damages, pursuant to the parties' contract). He never got to exercise his option, and she broke her promise to marry him.

The Engagement Ring As Symbol of Transfer?

An alternative to the contract theory can be drawn from more dated (and sexist) theories of marriage. These theories might suggest that the ring is symbolic of "title" to the bride — a legal right in her, as if she were property — being transferred from her father to her future husband.

A clump of earth and a twig was once used to symbolize the delivery of a parcel of land. Similarly, the giving of the ring could be seen as symbolic of the transfer of power and possession over a woman.

That theory, offensive though it is, would imply a ring need never be given back — and would, in that limited sense at least, ironically favor women's interests. Transfers of symbolic tokens generally do not need to be returned, even if the underlying deal falls through.

Engagement Ring as Conditional Gift

Neither the contract nor the symbolic token theory, however, has carried the day. Rather, the law governing the tradition of engagement rings is the law of gifts. That leads to a further question, however: Should an engagement ring be seen as an unconditional, or a conditional gift?

The Restatement of Restitution, a treatise on the rules that should govern payment for goods or services, advocates the unconditional gift approach. The Restatement sees the ring as simply a gift given with the hope that marriage will follow. That means that if even if the marriage does not take place, the gift stands — no matter who calls the marriage off.

Under this approach, only proof that the ring–and perhaps the engagement, too–was procured through fraud can make the jilting fiancee give the ring back. In practical terms, that means a fiance will only get his ring back if his fiancee breaks off the engagement and has, for example, written her mother a letter saying "I don't even intend to marry this guy, but the ring he inherited is worth a million and I intend to get it."

No-Fault Engagement?

Courts, by and large, have not adopted the unconditional gift approach, however. They have opted for the conditional gift approach instead.

This approach means the gift of the ring "vests" with the would-be bride only when the condition — the marriage — occurs. Conversely, when the condition fails and the marriage doesn't happen, for whatever reason, the gift never "vests."

Courts that take the conditional gift approach have, in turn, taken three different approaches to fashioning a rule about ring return: no-fault, modified fault, and fault.

Under a strict no-fault rule, the ring-giver is entitled to return of the ring–or its equivalent value–if the marriage never materializes. No questions asked.

This is a simple, bright-line rule. But it has been criticized for making the decision to propose marriage–which might induce the fiancee into a more intimate relationship–costless to the fiance. The result, critics say, is that the would-be bride may be hurt, while her fiance may become engaged carelessly, without a sufficiently thoughtful commitment.

There is also some imbalance in a law that gives the ring-giver his ring back, but does nothing to compensate the putative bride or her family, who traditionally pay for weddings, for unrecoverable outlays to caterers, florists, dress designers, and the like.

No-fault is the wave of the future. Most recent cases have advocated or adopted a no-fault principle. But a majority of courts still follow one of the other approaches: modified fault, or strict fault.

The Modified and Strict Fault Rules for Engagement Rings

Pursuant to a modified fault rule, the fiance is entitled to return of the ring

unless he is the one who called off the engagement–justifiably or not.

This approach, too, holds appeal in that it erects a relatively bright line rule. But equating the decision to call off the wedding with "fault" is, at best, superficial. And at worst, it induces the parties into an endless game of chicken, where each, having lost interest in marriage, is compelled to behave worse and worse until the other party cannot stand it anymore and calls it quits.

The third possible rule is a strict fault rule, under which the giver is entitled to return of the ring unless he was at fault for the broken engagement. But in this scheme, a determination of fault requires a more nuanced analysis, which examines not only who called off the engagement, but also whether that person was justified in doing so.

Of course, that inquiry inevitably enmeshes court in the complicated business of pinpointing the cause of a failed relationship. And who is to say when a broken engagement is justifiable?

Must such an action be based on something that makes the prospect of marriage unimaginable–like finding out one's fiancée is pregnant with another man's child? Or can it be simply something that makes marriage seem less desirable, like learning that one's fiancée is a slob, or discovering that the parties don't like to eat the same thing for dinner?

The difficulty of drawing these arbitrary lines is what has pushed most courts in the last five years toward a no-fault approach — in a trend somewhat similar to the trend that prompted no-fault divorce.

The Case of the Man Engaged Before He Was Divorced

In Marshall v. Cassano, the New York court took the majority approach as to how to characterize the engagement ring, deeming it a conditional gift. It also noted that New York generally follows a strict no-fault approach in deciding whether a ring must be returned.

One might initially guess that this would mean the giver — in this case, Joe Marshall, the plaintiff — would always win. But in this case, that guess would be wrong.

A New York statute governs the return of engagement rings. Under that statute, judges have discretion to order return of any gift made in contemplation of marriage, in the event the marriage never takes place. (Prior to the enactment of this statute, litigants in New York were not permitted to sue for the return of engagement rings.)

The purpose of New York's modern rule, the Court noted, is to return the parties to the status quo–the position they were in before becoming engaged–Dolores, without an $8,000 ring; Joe, with either the ring or $8,000 in his pocket.

But in Joe and Dolores' case, there was a twist: the rules governing the return of the ring once the condition of marriage failed did not straightforwardly apply. The court reasoned that because Joe was not free to marry at the time he extracted Dolores' promise to marry him, the ring he gave her could not have been given in consideration of marriage.

Instead, according to the court, the ring was simply a gift. And gifts cannot legally be taken back. (A court applying the modified fault approach would have reached the same result since it was Marshall who broke off the engagement; a court applying the unconditional gift approach would also have reached the same result.)

Rings as Symbolic Possession of Women

It may be surprising to some that ex-fiances actually sue one another over engagement rings. But disappointment and hurt feelings often propel people into vengeful acts. To a jilted would-be bride, keeping the ring may be a small satisfaction. To a would-be groom who has been jilted, losing the ring, as well as the bride, may seem to add insult to injury.

Perhaps instead of worrying so much about the law governing ring return, we should worry more about playing into a tradition that evokes an image of men's ownership of their wives. There is another, more equitable option: if fiances both exchange gifts upon engagement, rather than the man giving the woman a ring, then everyone will have something to keep, and something to lose, if things do not work out.
Comment by Southerngal on February 19, 2010 at 4:06pm
Yes they should get their ring back...theirs no point in keeping it ..........unless........the woman is bitter and wants to keep it .......and thats not a reason...its a reminder of what didn't happen between that woman and that man ........that is to devastating to deal with...JUST LET IT GO......
Comment by De'Anna Weeks on February 19, 2010 at 3:46pm
Yes give the ring back
Comment by Willie Carver Scott on February 19, 2010 at 3:15pm
Whoever fault it is give the ring back. It is better that the man or woman found out now instead of finding out after they are married that they decide they do not want one or the other.
Give the ring back and move on with your life.
Comment by Edie on February 19, 2010 at 2:45pm
There is no black or white answer to this... it's purely an "It depends" answer as to whether or not the man gets the ring back and I'll tell you why with two examples:
Example 1- The man proposes; the woman says "Yes!" and he gives her an engagement ring. She is the same, loving person he proposed to, BUT He gets a bad case of cold feet and breaks the engagement and calls off the wedding. She should keep the ring and do whatever her little heart wants with it. Whether "it" means throwing the ring into the river or pawning it or scratching his car with it!! (just kidding on that 3rd one!)

Example 2- The man proposes; the woman says "Yes!" and he gives her an engagement ring. However, one night he comes home to find her doing his best friend, his best friend's sister AND the family dog... all at the same time!! He nows has the right to demand the engagement ring back and kick that nasssy lil slut to the curb!

So, as you can see, it's not about being lady-like when it comes to whether she should give the ring back. It's ALL about the circumstances that led to the engagement being called off.
Comment by Mark in the ATL on February 19, 2010 at 8:37am
Common sense dictates give it back. Any woman who would want to keep it is doing it either for selfish or vindictive reasons.
Comment by Milford Woodard on February 18, 2010 at 2:40pm
Clyde Morris idea of a two ring exchange, of equal value, would solve that situation. But until that happens, give the ring back
Comment by Milford Woodard on February 18, 2010 at 2:34pm
The ring is only a symbol of one's intent to marry. The ring really isn't her's until the marriage takes place, until then its just to show ones intend. Cinderella5000 and Sunshine are both correct. If the marriage doesn't happen, would you want to keep the marriage license?
Comment by Derrick on February 17, 2010 at 1:51am
The ring is a symbol of promise. She is signaling to everyone her intent, her promise to wed a man. If the promise is broken then it is to symbolized by giving the ring back to the man she promised to wed. As long as she holds on to the ring she is still promised to that man. Check out my blog "The Promised Ring"
Comment by Willie Carver Scott on February 16, 2010 at 10:29pm
I think is the engagement is off the ring should be given back to the man. An engagement ring to me is like almost like the wedding band. If the couple does reconcile then the ring should be given back.


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