When Do You Have to Return Engagement or Wedding Rings?

Learn about the legal rules on who gets to keep engagement and wedding rings when a couple breaks up.

By , Attorney

Engagement and wedding rings are symbols of a couple's love and commitment. In addition to their sentimental value, these rings are often worth a lot of money. Do you have to return the engagement ring if your wedding is called off? Do you get to keep the rings after divorce?

You and your ex are free to reach any agreement that works for you both. But if you can't agree, the laws in your state will dictate who can keep the ring.

Engagement Rings and State Gift Laws

Courts generally view an engagement ring as a gift from one fiancé to the other. Each state has its own laws related to gift giving. These laws generally recognize a few different types of gifts:

  • Conditional gifts: A gift is conditional if a specific condition must be met before the gift belongs to its recipient. Because it's common knowledge that an engagement ring symbolizes a couple's intention to marry, the laws in most states treat engagement rings as conditional gifts made "in contemplation of marriage." If the wedding is called off, the condition for the gift hasn't been met. In most cases, the person who gave the ring (the donor) can reclaim it. But if the couple goes through with the marriage, the condition has been satisfied—no matter how long they stay married. In one case, for instance, the court held that the wife could keep the engagement ring even though the marriage lasted only four months. (Smith v. Smith, 797 S.W.2d 879 (Mo. Ct. App. 1990).)
  • Unconditional gifts: An unconditional gift is given freely, without any conditions. A minority of states treat engagement rings as unconditional gifts. For instance, courts in Montana consider an engagement ring an unconditional "inter vivos" gift (Latin for "between the living") —meaning that the recipient is allowed to keep the ring even if the engagement falls through. (Albinger v. Harris, 48 P.3d 711 (Mont. Sup. Ct. 2002).)
  • Gift "causa mortis": A gift "causa mortis" is a deathbed gift, made in the expectation that the donor will die very soon. An engagement or wedding ring could be considered a gift causa mortis under the right circumstances—but it's uncommon and can be hard to prove. You need to convince a judge that the donor was mentally competent when they gave you the ring, intentionally made the gift based on the belief that they would soon die of a specific illness or injury, and then actually died of that cause. You also need proof that you accepted the gift and took full possession of the ring before the donor died. Courts are often hesitant to recognize this type of gift. If you think your ring may be a gift causa mortis, you should seek advice from a lawyer in your state.

Engagement Rings as Conditional Gifts: Does It Matter Who Ended the Engagement?

If an engagement ring is a conditional gift, what's the condition? Some people have argued that the condition is simply saying "yes" to a marriage proposal. However, courts have consistently held that the condition isn't met until the couple actually marries.

Does it matter who's at fault for ending the engagement? Courts in most states say no, but there are several exceptions.

Most States: It Doesn't Matter Who Called Off the Wedding

Most state courts will order the ring returned to the donor if the engagement has ended, regardless of the circumstances. For instance, Pennsylvania favors this approach. As that state's supreme court has reasoned, attempting to assign blame "would invite the parties to stage the most bitter and unpleasant accusations against those whom they nearly made their spouse." Besides, it wouldn't be easy for judges to decide who was at fault. (Lindh v. Surman, 742 A.2d 643 (Pa. 1999).)

Some States: You Forfeit the Engagement Ring If You Call Off the Wedding

In a minority of states, the person responsible for ending the engagement isn't allowed to keep the ring. For example, Texas courts have held that a donor who's to blame for ending the engagement may not recover the ring. And Illinois courts have found that recipients who break the engagement without justification aren't entitled to keep (or get rid of) the ring. (Curtis v. Anderson, 106 S.W.3d 251 (Tex. App. 2003); Harris v. Davis, 487 N.E.2d 1204 (Ill. App. 1986).)

What If Both of You Agree to End Your Engagement?

Engagements don't always end because of one person. Sometimes the decision to call off a wedding is complicated or mutual. This may explain why courts in several states appear to be moving toward a no-fault approach. For example, a New Jersey court rejected the fault approach that was previously favored in the state, calling it "sexist and archaic." As the court pointed out, that approach was historically used to penalize women for ending engagements. (Aronow v. Silver, 538 A.2d 851 (1987)).

A few states, like California, have taken a middle ground, allowing a donor to reclaim the engagement ring if the engagement was ended by the recipient or by mutual agreement, but not if the donor ended it. (Cal. Civ. Code § 1590 (2022).)

What Happens to Engagement and Wedding Rings After Divorce?

When a marriage ends, the question of who gets to keep the engagement and wedding rings depends mostly on:

  • the state's rules for dividing property in divorce
  • when the rings were exchanged (before or during the marriage), and
  • how the state treats gifts between spouses.

How Rules on Property Division in Divorce Apply to Rings

In a divorce, all of the couple's assets and earnings are usually split into two basic categories: marital property and separate property. Generally, marital property (or "community property" in a few states) includes anything you or your spouse earned or acquired during the marriage, while separate property includes property you owned before the marriage and gifts you received individually before or during the marriage.

The laws on property division in divorce are different from state to state. In most states, spouses are entitled to keep their separate property when they get divorced, but some states allow judges to divide all of the spouses' property (marital and separate). So if a ring is considered one spouse's separate property, that spouse will usually get to keep it after the divorce. Otherwise, the judge could award it to either spouse as part of the property division.

Engagement Ring: You Can Probably Keep It After Divorce

As we explained above, even if an engagement ring is a conditional gift, it belongs to the recipient once the couple is married. For this reason, most state courts agree that the engagement ring is the recipient's separate property. That means the recipient will probably get to keep it after the divorce. Even in states that allow divorce courts to divide up separate property, judges usually award an engagement ring to the spouse who originally received it.

Wedding Rings: Separate Property or Marital Property?

The question of how to characterize wedding rings—separate or marital property—is more complicated than engagement rings. The answer could depend on several factors, including timing and whether the couple bought and paid for the rings together.

If your fiancé gave you the ring before the wedding, it would generally be considered your separate property. Traditionally, however, couples exchange wedding bands at the end of the marriage ceremony. So the rings are usually treated as property that's "acquired" during the marriage as a gift.

Depending on the state, however, that doesn't necessarily mean the rings are marital property. In many states, like Texas, gifts between spouses ("interspousal gifts," in legalese) are considered separate property. In other states, like Florida, the law clearly treats interspousal gifts as marital property. And in still other states, it may depend on the circumstances.

If You Want to Keep or Get the Ring Back: Next Steps

The best option for resolving a dispute about the ring (or rings) is to work out an agreement with your ex. But of course, that's not always possible. Your approach to the problem will depend on whether you're dealing with a broken engagement or a divorce.

  • Recovering an engagement ring when the wedding is cancelled. If you're the one who paid for the ring, you'll probably want to get it back so that you can either return it to the store or sell it. If your ex refuses, a lawyer in your state can help you understand your options. Depending on your situation and your state's laws, you might be able to sue your ex for breaking a contract to marry, unfairly benefiting from your broken engagement, or committing fraud.
  • Dealing with wedding and engagement rings during divorce. As with all of the issues in your divorce, you and your spouse may work out any arrangement for the rings that you want, as a separate agreement or as part of a complete divorce settlement agreement. If you can't reach an agreement on your own, you might consider divorce mediation. An experienced mediator can help you and your spouse find a solution that works for both of you, without the time and expense of court. But if none of these options work, it's a good idea to speak with a divorce lawyer who can explain how the laws in your state apply to your situation.

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