Recently, a friend of mine asked what happens to an engagement ring if a wedding is called off. It may or may not have had something to do with the fact that he was recently engaged (I chose to turn a blind eye to that fact and simply answered his question). Although this problem tends to arise in law school fact patterns and in jokes between buddies more often than in real life, the problem does arise from time to time and can be a contentious issue considering the emotions involved.
The law regarding engagement rings in Pennsylvania is very clear. In 1999, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania definitively answered the legal question and found that engagement rings are "conditional gifts." Normally, if one person gives a gift to another person, that gift is immediately the property of the recipient. However, the Supreme Court determined that engagement rings are conditional gifts and are an exception to the general rule. The "condition" in this case is the marriage of the parties and although the engagement ring is a gift to the recipient, ownership only transfers once the condition is met. Therefore, if the relationship ends prior to the parties actually getting married the engagement is still the property of the giver and should be returned.
The common defense the recipient gives for wanting to keep the engagement ring usually is as follows: "It's not my fault that we had to call off the wedding. He was running around behind my back/is a jerk/is ugly and I don't like him any longer etc., and I should be able to keep the ring because of that." Thankfully, the Supreme Court anticipated this problem and ruled that it does not matter why the wedding was called off. In its 1999 opinion the Court stated, "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."
Therefore, the Supreme Court made it crystal clear that regardless of the circumstances surrounding the parties' break-up, if they do not follow through with the marriage, the ring belongs to the giver and should be promptly returned. Although this piece of information may be more likely to come in handy as a piece of trivia, if you find yourself in this circumstance, contact a family law attorney. He or she will be able help you retrieve the ring, hopefully as painlessly as possible.
Feel free to contact my Pittsburgh law firm, Gusty A.E. Sunseri & Associates, with any questions regarding engagement, marriage or divorce.