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Family Law Blog

Whose Ring Is It?

February 13, 2014 | by

It’s that time of year again – love is in the air, diamond retailer commercials are in high gear, and proposals are being planned. While we would like to believe “love is everlasting”, when the champagne is consumed and the string quartet hired to play at sunset is gone, the reality may hit and you or your betrothed may be left asking “am I really ready to vow to death do us part?” If the answer is no, an engagement may be broken by one or both of the parties, leaving the question what happens to the ring?

An engagement ring, for centuries, has been a symbolic manifestation of a promise to marry. It seems we can attribute the use of diamonds in engagement rings to the Archduke Maximilian of Austria who in 1477 presented a diamond betrothal ring to Mary of Burgundy. The origins of engagement can be found in the Jewish Torah and the practice was later adopted in ancient Greece at which time the giving of the ring was eventually adopted by Roman marriage law. The ring would be presented by the fiancé after swearing an oath of marriage intent. It is this “promise” of marriage that creates an obligation that needs to be fulfilled in order to retain the ring.

While the law varies from state to state, in New Jersey, if an engagement is broken, the recipient of the engagement ring must return it to the individual who gave the ring if the ring was given for the purpose of signifying engagement to be married between the parties. The engagement ring is a gift conditioned upon marriage. If the condition precedent (the marriage) does not take place, the condition is not fulfilled and the ring must be returned.

The law requiring the return of the engagement ring is not an award of punitive damages, as there is no action under New Jersey law for a breach of contract to marry. Since 1935, New Jersey’s Heart Balm statute has barred any claim for damages based upon breach of contract to marry. Instead, any claim to recover the ring is founded in the right to recover a conditional gift.  This right to recover an engagement ring can be pursued by filing a lawsuit. You do not have to prove fault, as fault will not be considered by the Court. Our Courts have observed that the fault rule is “sexist” and “archaic” and a painful reminder of a time when the law discriminated against women.

The reason for the breakup of the engagement, and which party broke the engagement, does not matter; a person may have good reasons or reasons that appear unjustifiable to the other party. However, in either case, if the marriage did not take place, the engagement ring must be returned. Moreover, the value of the ring is insignificant to the claim.

If the parties are married and later divorce, the engagement ring is retained by the recipient, as the condition of marriage has been fulfilled even though the marriage is later dissolved. Note, however, if the ring was modified during the marriage in any manner, such as the diamond being placed in a new setting, the ring may be subject to equitable distribution (division between the parties) in the divorce as the new setting may make result in the ring being considered wholly or partially an interspousal gift. Interspousal gifts (i.e. gifts between husband and wife during a marriage) are generally subject to equitable distribution in divorce.

Interestingly, giving an engagement ring on a holiday traditionally associated with gift-giving may change the outcome. If a ring is given on a holiday such as Christmas, a birthday or Valentine’s Day, the ring may be considered a gift for the holiday or occasion, rather than an engagement ring, and the ring may not have to be returned. The court will have to determine the donor’s intention. What were the words used at the time the ring was presented? By way of example, were the words “will you marry me” used? Where was the ring given? At a birthday party or while exchanging holiday gifts? These, and other facts surrounding the giving of the ring, could be used to show intention.

If the intention was a marriage proposal and the former fiancé refuses to return the ring, the giver of the ring may file suit against the recipient for a judgment mandating the return of the ring or reimbursement for its value. It is advisable to keep a picture of the ring and the receipt, along with an appraisal, if possible. A picture with your fiancé wearing the ring would also be helpful in case the ring “disappears”, like the “everlasting” love you shared.

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