Family Law Legal Topics

The Engagement Is Off! Who Keeps the Ring?

163836521The recent Supreme Court decision that permitted same-sex marriages to resume in California may mean more engagement rings will be given here than ever. It’s a good time to brush up on the law—do you know who gets to keep the ring if the engagement is broken?

With the average engagement ring costing $5,200 the question of who gets the ring if the engagement is broken is often a very big issue.

Miss Manners says that the rules of etiquette require the return of an engagement ring after a breakup regardless of who broke it off. The Bachelor TV show seems to follow that traditional view, contracting for the ring’s return regardless of who ends the relationship unless the engagement lasts at least 2 years. But under California law, the fate of the ring depends on who broke the engagement.

California law provides that gifts made in contemplation of marriage are revocable if the marriage doesn’t take place. CC §1590. This statute applies to either party to the contemplated marriage. Under §1590, the gift of an engagement ring is revocable, i.e., the ring must be returned, when either

  1. the recipient of the ring (the donee) refuses to marry, or
  2. the marriage is mutually abandoned.

But what if the person who gave the ring (the donor) has a change of heart and refuses to marry? Although CC §1590 doesn’t specifically refer to this situation, it seems clear that the donor can’t set aside the gift: “the clear meaning of the quoted statute is that the donee of an engagement ring is entitled to retain possession thereof when the marriage contract is breached by the donor without any fault on the donee’s part.” See Simonian v Donoian (1950) 96 CA2d 259, 262, 215 P2d 119.

This statute applies to gifts beyond an engagement ring too. For example, a would-be spouse who had acquired real and personal property in the name of husband and wife under the expectation that he and his fiancée would soon be married was awarded all the property when his former fiancée failed to obtain a divorce from her previous husband and the two separated. Shaw v Shaw (1964) 227 CA2d 159, 38 CR 520.

Some may argue that Miss Manners’ route is the ethical way to go, but if you’re dumped in California, the ring is yours to keep!

For more on noncharitable inter vivos (lifetime) gifts, check out CEB’s California Estate Planning, chapter 8.

You may also be interested in these CEB blog posts:

© The Regents of the University of California, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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