November 8, 2023
We often think about the complex legal issues that can arise during a divorce, but it is equally crucial to contemplate the legal intricacies that may surface throughout an engagement and prior to marriage. For example, in the aftermath of a breakup, the question of who gets to keep the engagement ring can often become a contentious issue. In the United States, different states take varied approaches. Some states follow the traditional fault-based approach. In this approach, courts examine the specific circumstances of a case and determine fault to decide which party should retain the engagement ring. The basis for recovery is typically rooted in the concept of a conditional gift. However, there's variability among courts regarding how they assess fault. Some consider who initiated the breakup, while others look at the party responsible for the underlying conduct leading to the termination of the engagement. Conversely, the modern no-fault approach, which is prevalent across the country, treats the engagement ring as a conditional gift that must be returned to the donor if the engagement ends, regardless of fault. Additionally, at least one state has taken a different approach and treats the engagement ring as an irrevocable gift, essentially adopting a no-fault rule for the recipient.
Under current Massachusetts law, "[i]t is generally held that an engagement ring is in the nature of a pledge, given on the implied condition that the marriage shall take place. If the contract to marry is terminated without fault on the part of the donor[, the donor] may recover the ring." De Cicco v. Barker, 339 Mass. 457, 458 (1959). Accordingly, in Massachusetts, the court’s determination of whom is at fault is essential to the analysis of who gets the ring is. Over the last several decades, Massachusetts courts have struggled to define the meaning of “fault.” Most recently, however, in Johnson v. Settino (2023), the court made clear that “[W]hatever the definition, in our view, it cannot be that the person at fault for a relationship break-up is simply the one who decides to end it; common sense dictates that a party who ends an engagement is not necessarily the one to blame for that result.” In that case, the plaintiff sought recovery of an engagement ring and two wedding bands that he had purchased. The appeals court reversed the Superior Court judge's disposition awarding the engagement ring and one wedding band to the defendant. They determined that while the plaintiff mistakenly believed that the defendant was having an affair, the evidence was insufficient to sustain a finding that the plaintiff was "at fault" for the parties' separation. The court further determined that ”[S]ometimes there simply is no fault to be had,” and ordered the return of the rings to the plaintiff. Undoubtedly, the case law demonstrates that a fact specific examination is necessary before determining which party will retain the engagement ring.
It is important to note that this standard only applies in circumstances where the parties end their relationship prior to their marriage. If the parties were married, the engagement ring is considered marital property and is subject to division just as any other marital asset.
The fate of an engagement ring in a breakup can be emotionally charged and legally intricate. Factors such as who initiated the breakup and the nature of the gift can influence the ownership determination. In all cases, open communication and, when necessary, legal counsel, can help navigate this delicate issue and arrive at a fair resolution. It's important to remember that the specifics of each situation can vary, and seeking professional advice tailored to your circumstances is recommended.
When disputes over the engagement ring are complex or contentious, it is prudent to seek legal counsel. Casner & Edwards has many attorneys experienced in family law and property division and can provide valuable guidance and represent your interests effectively.