The article below was written by Vicki L. Shemin, J.D., LICSW, ACSW and published in Citybizlist on January 25, 2021
Lest you think that the proprieties and perplexities surrounding broken engagements are a modern phenomenon, we need only look back to the 15th century.
It is said that in 1477, Archduke Maximillian of Austria commissioned the very first diamond engagement ring on record for his betrothed, Mary of Burgundy, thus setting a penchant for diamond engagement rings among the higher echelons of European society.
With that stage set, the marketing genius of DeBeers was sure to follow. And, nowadays, it seems that engagements have become all about the diamond ring.
But fast forward a bit and then show me an announcement of a broken engagement. The next exclamation is inevitably: “Did she give back the ring?” (Apologies for falling into the typical gender trap.)
Did she? Should she? With some statistics estimating that a quarter of a million engagements do not end in marriage, this is a significant fiscal and sociological question with both legal and moral implications.
As with all things marital, the answer to what a court is likely to do when it comes to “who gets to keep the ring” depends on varying state laws (by which I do not mean to imply that the law is always as clear as a princess cut).
Typically, these cases are analyzed as to whether the intent was to give the ring as a gift, whether the ring was actually given as a gift, and whether the donee accepted the ring as a gift. But wait…there’s more. A conditional promise to marry is also attached. More to the point, the majority of states have taken the view that if the affianced does not perform on the promise to marry, then the ring must be returned as that token was itself the consideration for the promise to say “I do.”
But that analysis would be too simple. Some states – like Massachusetts – take fault into consideration and consider who broke off the engagement. After satisfying that inquiry, the one who broke off the engagement does not get the ring. While that might appear to be an elegantly simple resolution, anyone who knows human nature understands that the person who actually broke off the engagement may well have been provoked to do so, or, may have done so because their louse spouse-not-to-be was really at fault.
But, back to elegantly simple solutions. Consider Montana! That state takes an approach as clear as a gem. The engagement ring is deemed to be an unconditional gift that is kept by the recipient – despite whether the marriage ever happens and despite who pulled the plug on the engagement.
In case you are wondering, is the law more settled when it comes to wedding bands or engagement rings after the marriage? I think not. While some would strenuously argue that wedding rings are marital property subject to division in the event of divorce, others would counterpunch they are completed gifts because any preconditions attached to the gift have been met (i.e., the wedding itself sealed the deal).
Are there any escape clauses? A least two worth noting. First, if an engagement ring is given on a holiday or birthday, some say that the argument is strengthened that the ring was merely a completed gift irrespective of whether the marriage goes forward or not because the ring is less attached to the promise of marriage and relates more to the occasion of the special date on which it was given. So, let that be a cautionary tale for those who are contemplating a Valentine’s Day, Christmas, or New Year’s proposal. Second, if the engagement ring is a family heirloom, this should be a no-brainer dictating that it should be returned to the donor.
So, what’s the law about the propriety of who gets to keep the ring? Indeed, what’s fair in this facet of “all’s fair in love and war”?
Well, as all things in the law, the answer is what law students are taught on their first day of law school: “it depends.”
And, even at that, are we talking about human laws, or, underlying moral codes (as the latter cannot be legislated)?
Vicki L. Shemin, J.D., LICSW, ACSW, a divorce lawyer and clinical social worker, is a partner at Fields and Dennis LLP in Wellesley. She can be reached at 781.489.6776 or VShemin@FieldsDennis.com.