Who Gets the Ring When the Engagement Is Called Off?

November 17, 2018 | Court Decisions, Divorce, Legal Perspective, Prenuptial Agreements

Icon for author Candice Komar Candice Komar

As the holidays approach for many, it is a time of planning for an engagement. Holiday engagements frequently are rather public affairs with a profession of love and a request for commitment to marriage in front of family and friends. And of course the ring is fit for the occasion — extravagant, sparkly and beautiful.

What happens, however, if down the road the couple does not get married?  Who gets this fabulous ring?

The law treats the giving of an engagement ring as a conditional gift. In other words, the ring is given on the condition a marriage will take place. All the recipient needs to do to keep the ring is go through with the wedding ceremony, not merely accept the marriage proposal.  Justice Musmanno explained the conditional gift principal quite eloquently in Pavlicic v. Vogtsberger, 390 Pa. 502, 136 A.2d 127 (1957).

A gift given by a man to a woman on condition that she embark on the sea of matrimony with him, is no different from a gift based on the condition that the donee sail on any other sea.  If, after receiving the provisional gift, the donee refuses to leave the harbor — if the anchor of a contractual performance sticks in the sands of irresolution and procrastination — the gift must be restored to the donor.  Id. at 507, 136 A.2d at 130.

Acceptance of the marriage proposal is not the implied condition for the gift, but the performance of the marriage ceremony itself.

The law in Pennsylvania is clear — irrespective of who calls the wedding off, the ring legally should be returned to the donor.  Lindh v. Surman, 742 A.2d 643 (Pa. 1999). Our Supreme Court has stated the rule concerning the return of a ring founded on fault principals requires an analysis of who ended the engagement and examine the person’s reasons. In some instances, these reasons may be entirely justified. This kind of inquiry would invite the parties to stage bitter and unpleasant accusations against the person intending to be his/her spouse and the court would have no clear guidance with regard as to how to ascertain who was “at fault.”

Pennsylvania law is consistent with the modern trend of applying a no-fault rule to the engagement ring cases. Some Pennsylvania authorities have suggested the donor cannot recover the ring when the donor breaks the engagement. This is a modified fault concept where the ring only is returned if the donee breaks off the engagement. The Lindh court was asked to adopt a modified no-fault principal in an approach denying the donor return of the ring if the donor benefits by breaking the engagement.  In Lindh, however, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court declined to adopt this modified no-fault position and holds the donor is entitled to return of the ring even if the donor broke the engagement. Therefore, if the wedding does not take place, the ring goes back irrespective of whose decision it was not to move forward. So go ahead and spring for that big rock because if the engagement is called off, you will be able to seek its return, through the courts if necessary.

The ring is only the first in a line of considerations for high net worth individuals in particular when it comes to your finances, assets and protection prior to marriage. Make sure to review your options and prepare a prenuptial agreement if necessary. Our family law attorneys can help you consider carefully and plan for your protection. Contact us at (412) 471-9000 or fill out our online contact form to learn more.

About the Author

Candice L. Komar, founding partner of Pollock Begg, is a strong litigator, trained mediator and collaborative law attorney who often deals with divorces involving closely held businesses, complex issues and high net worth individuals. A fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers and recognized by local and national awards programs for her business sense and family law leadership, particularly in collaborative law, Candice is also often tapped by media to discuss hard-hitting custody and divorce cases.

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