The engagement is broken. Who gets the ring?

Engagement rings have a long history, dating from Roman times and before. An engagement ring indicates that the person wearing it is engaged to be married. Usually, the ring is presented to the bride-to-be as a betrothal gift by a man when she accepts his marriage proposal.

Not every engagement results in a marriage. If the engagement is broken, the question arises, must the ring be returned to the man or is it the property of the woman? Matches made in heaven must be litigated on earth.

Some states consider an engagement ring to be a conditional gift. That is, the gift of the ring is made in contemplation of marriage. If marriage doesn’t occur, the ring must be returned. On the other hand, some states have laws that consider the gift of the ring to be a completed gift. No return required. No ifs, ands or buts.

In the past many jurisdictions based the decision of who gets the ring on whose “fault” caused the broken engagement. If the man broke the engagement, the woman could keep the ring. If the woman broke the engagement, she had to return it. Imagine the testimony trying to prove fault.

Most jurisdictions have generally now moved to a “no-fault” approach. This movement accompanied the creation of no-fault divorce. Prior to no-fault divorce, a person or couple who wanted a divorce where there was no serious misconduct, had to falsely testify (yes, that’s right, commit perjury) in order to establish grounds for divorce. Just as with the situation involving the return of the engagement ring, commentators said that requiring a finding of fault added bitterness and hostility to the proceedings, hours of testimony of recounting revolting stories (some true, some not) before the judge, consuming ever scarcer resources. “If there is no longer a viable marriage, the question of fault, of ‘guilt’ or ‘innocence’ is irrelevant.” (Gleason v. Gleason)

In general, the law has moved away from “fault” in matters of the heart. At common law we had the heart-balm torts – alienation of affections, seduction, criminal conversation, and breach of promise to marry. These torts were often found in conjunction with a dispute over the ownership of an engagement ring. A broken engagement could result in a breach of promise action and a demand for return of the ring. These “heart balm” actions attempted to provide monetary damages for the loss of love. The statutes that abolished these actions are generally called the heart-balm statutes (although more appropriately they would be called the anti-heart-balm statutes).

Pennsylvania abolished the action for criminal conversation in 1976. Pennsylvania didn’t abolish the actions for alienation of affection and breach of promise to marry until 1990. Esteemed Law Professors Prosser and Keeton writing in the 1980s said, “There is good reason to believe that even genuine actions of this type are brought more frequently than not with purely mercenary or vindictive motives; that it is impossible to compensate for such damage with what has derisively been called ‘heart balm’. . . .”

Similarly, to involve the judicial system in sorting out whose conduct, attitude, words, expressions and peccadilloes were the “cause” of the termination of an engagement is unprofitable at best, and foolish, gruesome and wasteful at worst.

Adoption of the no-fault approach to the engagement ring does not answer the question about who gets the ring. The no-fault rule could equally be that the woman keeps it, regardless of fault, or it is returned to the groom, regardless of fault.

The 1999 case of Lindh v. Surman is the leading case in Pennsylvania and holds that the law in Pennsylvania is that an engagement ring is a conditional gift and that without an agreement to the contrary, it is conditioned upon the marriage taking place. The ring must be returned to the donor if that condition does not occur. The court said: “Thus, we find the gift of the ring to Janis at the time of their betrothal was subject to an implied condition requiring its return if the marriage did not take place.”

Not happy with that result? Make your own agreement and put it in writing.