I Want My Ring Back!

12/31/2011 01:56 pm ET | Updated Mar 01, 2012

December is a big month for wedding engagements, and accordingly, a prospectively lucrative month for the divorce industry as well. The more weddings, the more divorces.. In fact, reports indicate that a whopping nineteen percent of the reported 2.3 million couples who get engaged to marry each year in the United States, actually get engaged during the month of December.

For years and years, it has been ingrained in to our consciousness that "a diamond is forever." We have been counseled how much we should spend on this symbol of marital commitment, the current marketing telling us two to three months of your salary is the correct amount. The problem is that while a diamond is forever, marriages are not. And frequently, engagements are not either.

So for discussion purposes let's assume that you have either received or presented a beautiful expensive engagement ring. You are probably elated and overjoyed that you have found your soul mate and will live happily ever after.

However, let's consider another path. You have now decided that you should not have made or accepted the marriage proposal and have determined that marriage is not right for you; or at least not to your present fiancé. The average length of an engagement in the United States is fifteen months and a lot can transpire during such a lengthy period. You have decided to break off the engagement or maybe your fiancé has. Can you get the ring back, or do you have to give the ring back? Well, it depends on where you live.

It used to be that engagement rings were considered gifts, completed at the time of delivery. But now, courts have created "conditional gifts" and divided their views into two separate camps, just like divorce: fault and no-fault. In fault jurisdictions, the courts look at who broke off the engagement and the reasons why. They then determine if you get the ring back. In no-fault jurisdictions (or those which acknowledge conditional gifts) the courts do not examine the reasons why the engagement was terminated; they simply hold that if the marriage does not take place, the person presenting the ring gets the ring back. Case closed.

I am sure that half of the people reading this article will find such a conclusion unfair. Well, unfortunately, the law is not always fair. In a hilarious opinion, The Supreme Court of Kansas examined this issue and their rationale for adopting a no-fault rule concerning giving back engagement rings. Enjoy this actual excerpt from Heiman v. Parrish:

"What is fault or the unjustifiable calling off of an engagement? By way of illustration, should courts be asked to determine which of the following grounds for breaking an engagement is fault or justified? (1) The parties have nothing in common; (2) one party cannot stand prospective in-laws; (3) a minor child of one of the parties is hostile to and will not accept the other party; (4) an adult child of one of the parties will not accept the other party; (5) the parties' pets do not get along; (6) a party was too hasty in proposing or accepting the proposal; (7) the engagement was a rebound situation which is now regretted; (8) one party has untidy habits that irritate the other; or (9) the parties have religious differences. The list could be endless."

The safest bet is to treat the ring like a gift, unless you have already determined that you are in a no-fault state like Pennsylvania, New York, Minnesota or Michigan (there are many others). Or make your marital proposal in Montana (you can probably get your ring back there). Regardless, be prepared for the cost of the attorney's fees that you will expend (in addition to the emotional turmoil you will probably suffer) to try and get the ring back or to try and keep it away from the person you were supposed to love. Happy holidays!