The engagement is over and the question of the engagement ring arises. Added to the emotional ruin, the parties involved must deal with the question of whether the engagement ring needs to be returned. Though most engagements lead to a marriage, some engagements do not make it to the altar and result in significant conflict over the engagement ring.
Courts generally treat the engagement ring as a gift, from the donor (the person who gave the ring) to the donee (the person who received it). To be considered a legal gift, three things must be present: the donor’s intent to give the ring as a gift, the donor’s delivery of it to the donee, and the donee’s acceptance of the item. If the person to whom the ring was given can show all three elements, a court will consider the ring to be a gift.
The California Civil Code § 1590 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.
This means that the court considers such a gift, such as a ring, to be a conditional one. That means that, until some future event occurs, in this case the marriage, the gift isn’t final. So, if the marriage does not occur, then the donor has the right to get the gift back. In real life, many parents use this concept by, for example, giving a teenage son the keys to the family car, on the condition that he maintain a certain grade point average for a specified period of time. If he doesn’t make the grade, the keys must be returned.
Women who want to keep their engagement rings often argue that the condition needed to make the engagement ring a final gift is simply the acceptance of the proposal of marriage, not the completion of the marriage ceremony. That way, if the engagement is broken, the ring remains her property.
However, this argument often loses. The majority of courts find that the gift of an engagement ring contains an implied condition of marriage; acceptance of the proposal is not the underlying “deal.” Absent some other understanding — say, that the ring is merely a memento of a great friendship — most courts look at engagement rings as conditional gifts given in contemplation of marriage.
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