In Massachusetts, an engagement ring is usually considered a conditional gift: given on the condition that the couple gets married. The normal expectation is that if the engagement is broken and the wedding doesn’t occur, then the ring will be returned. However, it doesn’t always work out this way. In the event a dispute about an engagement ring makes its way to court, the court will look at the circumstances surrounding the giving of the ring and the circumstances surrounding the breakup of the couple.
Some people give the ring on an important day in the calendar. An engagement ring given on a birthday or on Christmas can be a combination of a unconditional gift and a conditional gift. If a court determines that the ring was a birthday gift, then it is not conditional and should not be returned. This concept should encourage giving the ring on a day that is only special because the engagement occurs on that day.
The way in which the couple breaks up can decide who gets the ring. If it is a mutual decision to not get married, then the ring should be returned as the wedding did not occur. However, if one of the parties misbehaves and this causes the break up, then it is a different result. The party who is at fault for the end of the relationship can’t get the ring. If there is fault such as an affair, physical abuse, or other wrongful conduct, then the ring will go to the party without fault. If neither party is at fault, then the ring is returned to the donor.
The result is different after the marriage if a divorce occurs. Once the marriage occurs, the condition of the conditional gift has been met and the recipient of the ring gets to keep the ring. Unlike an engagement, fault in the termination of the marriage does not effect ownership of the engagement ring. Once the condition of the marriage is met, the gift is complete. This doesn’t mean that the ring can never be returned. In a divorce in Massachusetts, a divorce judge has great discretion in property division. The judge’s power extends to almost all property including the engagement ring. This means that a judge can change ownership of the ring to fairly and equitably divide all property owned by the couple. As a general rule, a judge won’t look to change ownership of a ring unless the ring has significant value. In most divorces, the judge will let the recipient keep the ring.
If you are getting divorced an experienced divorce lawyer can advise you on property division including the manner to treat the engagement ring.