We’re not lawyers, so please accept our disclaimer. Nothing here is intended or may be construed to constitute legal advice. It may not be used as, relied on or substituted for legal advice. The law is rarely black and white, and it can change (and we won’t be able to update our understanding like a lawyer would). You should consult your own legal counsel of your choice.
That said, here are what we believe to be the basic guiding legal principles regarding who owns an engagement ring in the event of a break-up:
State law controls.
There isn’t a single, definitive legal position across the entire country. Where you live makes a difference.
Except for a few states, the gift of an engagement ring is a conditional gift.
In lawyer speak, this means that marriage, following the engagement, is an implied condition to the transfer of title to the ring. For the rest of us, it means that if he gives you a ring, you don’t own it unless you marry him (or, if you’re the giver, she doesn’t own it unless she marries you). Contrary to what you might believe, as a legal matter, you are not entitled to keep an engagement ring just because it was given to you. But, if the marriage doesn’t happen, who gets the ring?
In most states, fault matters.
To the lawyers, this means that whoever prevented the condition of the gift from occurring forfeits the gift. For us, if the marriage doesn’t happen, whoever caused it not to happen (everything from just changing your mind to infidelity), loses the ring. And a tie, where there’s mutual fault, goes to the groom. While the law here may be fairly clear, factual disputes in real life about who’s at fault for a break-up, including all of the excuses and finger pointing, can be a mess. Even though it’s the majority view, it’s a very old school approach.
The modern trend is that fault doesn’t matter.
In a number of states, if the condition of the gift isn’t satisfied (the marriage doesn’t occur, regardless of the reason), then he gets the ring back. It doesn’t matter who broke off the engagement or why they did it. If the marriage doesn’t happen, the law says you don’t get to keep the ring.
Some states have altogether different rules.
Contrary to the majority view above, certain states treat the gift of an engagement ring as a fully consummated, unconditional gift when it’s given. In English, this means that if it’s a gift, it’s a gift. Since the marriage isn’t considered a condition of the gift, you get to keep the ring even if the marriage doesn’t happen. And in a strange twist on the modern trend above, in a handful of states, the person who breaks the engagement gets to keep the ring!
If the marriage occurs, the gift is complete.
Who has rights to the engagement ring if the marriage happens and is later dissolved? Under all the legal theories discussed above, once the marriage happens, the ring belongs to the recipient. As a general rule, an engagement ring is not an asset that is subject to equitable distribution in a divorce. It’s yours.
Gifts of other jewelry may be different.
What about gifts of jewelry other than engagement rings? Again, the facts and circumstances will be at issue, but in most instances these gifts won’t be conditioned on your getting married the way an engagement ring is. If there isn’t a condition to the gift, title to the item given transfers when the gift is made. In these cases, a gift is a gift. So even if the marriage doesn’t occur, you get to keep these items.