Ward of the Rings
Who Gets the Engagement Ring if the Relationship Ends?
For many people, it’s the one time in our lives when we’re almost guaranteed a romantic moment. After a successful courtship, one of you takes the big step and proposes marriage. In an instant, you’re transformed from the world of dating to engaged.
And in many cases, there’s a ring involved. An expensive one.
According to the 2021 WeddingWire Newlywed Report, the average cost of an engagement ring is currently $5,500, and 18 percent of engaged couples will spend more than $10,000.
So its kind of a big deal when one of the parties breaks off the engagement. Who gets the ring? Or, if the relationship survives the wedding day but ends in divorce, who owns the ring then?
Both good questions, and surprisingly, both have been decided by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
In a 1999 case, Pennsylvania’s highest court found in Lindh v. Surman that an engagement ring is more than simply an expression of love and affection. It’s a “conditional gift,” given in contemplation of a marriage. That means that while the ring is certainly a gift, there is an expectation of a marriage to follow. If the relationship fails and the couple goes their separate ways before the wedding, the “condition” of marriage is not met. Hence, the ring should rightfully belong to the “donor,” or the party giving the ring as a gift.
So far, so good.
But what if the condition of a marriage is met, the couple exchange marriage vows, are legally married, and decide to divorce later? What becomes of the engagement ring then?
In Lindh, the Court found that once the marriage takes place and the “condition” is met, the engagement ring is no longer a “conditional gift,” but rather a “completed gift,” meaning it rightfully belongs to the recipient. As such, it is not considered marital property and is not subject to consideration in the equitable distribution of assets. What’s more, while some lower courts have begun to apply a “fault analysis” in divorce cases in order to determine who should receive the engagement ring, the Supreme Court has given no consideration to which party broke off the engagement and turns a blind eye to the question of fault.
However, should that ring increase in value from the date of marriage to the date of separation, the additional value is considered marital property and is subsequently in play in any divorce proceeding.
Of course, if a couple prefers a different ownership arrangement, there is one simple remedy—a prenuptial agreement. That way, they can dictate their own terms for the ownership of the engagement ring should the relationship fail.
What they do with the ring after that is an entirely different matter.
Lorraine W. Mervan is a Principal at Gentile, Horoho & Avalli, P.C. where she practices family law.