Broken engagement: who keeps the ring?

It’s wedding season again. And while many couples are putting the finishing touches on their big day, others are second-guessing themselves. Whether in panic over the permanence, uncertainty about their mate or simply a change of heart, it’s a sad reality that engaged couples can and do break up before the wedding.

Amid the frenzy of undoing all the wedding arrangements — canceling caterers and flowers, recalling invitations and the like — one question is sure to arise. Who keeps the ring?

Before you say a gift is a gift, you need to know something about Wisconsin law. Here, the law distinguishes between conditional and absolute gifts.

A conditional gift is one subject to the performance of a given act by the recipient, and the giver may recover the gift if the recipient does not fulfill the condition. Conversely, an absolute gift is one where a gift is given irrevocably or unconditionally.

When it comes to engagement rings, courts generally view engagement rings as conditional gifts, given on condition of marriage, with absolute ownership effective once the wedding occurs.

But courts will consider other factors such as the length of the relationship, who contributed what toward the union and whether the ring is a family heirloom. Courts may find exceptions for situations where the ring was given on Christmas or a birthday, where it may appear to be an absolute gift.

Other situations are less clear. For example, where one or both parties are still married to other persons, therefore rendering them unable legally to marry one another, the court could go either way. On one hand, it may say the ring must be an absolute gift because at least one party wasn’t able legally to enter such a conditional arrangement. Or the court may rule that the ring goes back to the giver because the parties were legally unable at the outset to satisfy the conditions of the gift.

In any case, for recipients looking to keep their rings, the burden is on them to prove they were absolute gifts.

Of course, one way to avoid such uncertainty is to make and enter a contract that resolves ownership should the couple not make it down the aisle. But that’s probably the last thing on couples’ enamored minds upon engagement.

If you’d like to make a decision based on less ambiguous information, perhaps you’re best off turning to the likes of etiquette mavens Letitia Baldridge, Emily Post or Miss Manners’ Judith Martin. They said, quite simply, the correct thing to do in the situation is return the ring. 


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