When a marriage proposal is accompanied by an engagement ring, and someone breaks the engagement by refusing to marry, is the recipient legally obligated to return the ring?
The usual rule is the person who breaks the engagement probably loses the ring. However, “probably” does not mean “certainly.”
In our culture, an engagement ring which accompanies a proposal is usually considered to be a gift in contemplation of marriage. The underlying assumption is a gift in the form of an engagement ring is exchanged solely for each party’s promise to marry the other.
CA Civil Code §1590 addresses this type of gift. It states: “Where either party to a contemplated marriage in this State makes a gift of money or property to the other on the basis or assumption that the marriage will take place, in the event that the donee refuses to enter into the marriage as contemplated or that it is given up by mutual consent, the donor may recover such gift or such part of its value as may, under all of the circumstances of the case, be found by a court or jury to be just.”
The language of this statute suggests the recipient must return the ring (or the value of the ring) if:
- The recipient refuses to marry; or,
- Both parties jointly decide not to marry.
However, the rule appears to be different if the donor subsequently refuses to marry. California courts have interpreted this statute to mean the recipient usually has no legal duty to return the ring if the donor refuses to marry.
Unfortunately, there is no certain result if the parties seek court intervention, because:
- Even though the statute specifically applies to gifts in contemplation of marriage, legal principles of fraud and other defenses for breach of contract may apply. These principles are numerous, complicated and conflicting. One can never predict how a judge or jury will interpret and apply any of those principles.
- One can never predict what evidence will be brought to the court’s attention. Nor can one predict how, or even whether, a judge or jury will consider or interpret that evidence.
- The statute itself is ambiguous. It states the donor “… may recover such gift or such part of its value as may, under all of the circumstances of the case, be found by a court or jury to be just. “May” does not mean “certainly.” It means “maybe.” And one can never predict what a judge or jury will “find” to be “just.”
Therefore, depending on who calls off the wedding, the rules are probably as follows:
- Recipient refuses to marry, due to no fraud by or other fault of the donor: Recipient returns the ring.
- Donor refuses to marry, due to no fraud by or other fault of the recipient: Recipient keeps the ring.
- Both parties jointly decide to cancel the marriage: Recipient returns the ring.
Deviations from tradition may substantially increase this uncertainty. Our cultural tradition usually observes males giving engagement rings to females in heterosexual relationships. There is no certainty about how, or whether, these principles might change if:
- A female gives an engagement ring to a male, in a heterosexual relationship; or,
- A male gives an engagement ring to a male, or a female gives an engagement ring to a female, in a homosexual relationship; or,
- Both parties give and receive engagement rings; or,
- One of the parties is transgender, or both parties are transgender.
The material on this document is intended for informational purposes only, and does not constitute legal or other professional advice for any purpose. No attorney/client relationship and no confidential relationship of any kind is formed by reviewing or using this material in any way or from any direct or indirect contact with any attorney arising from that review or use. If you need legal or other professional services, consult with the appropriate, competent attorney or other professional.