Who Keeps the Bling After a Break-up? Engagement ring ownership is defined under Ohio law.
At 18 years old, Johnny and Patty are in love. Johnny has been dating Patty for almost 4 years. Upon graduating high school, both decide to attend a four-year college in Dayton, Ohio. Johnny and Patty decide to take all the same classes and spend nearly every waking minute with each other. The summer prior to moving, Johnny approaches Patty’s parents and asks if he can propose. Patty’s parents grant permission, believing the two to be inseparable. Johnny, who recently fell into some money from an inheritance, decides to purchase a $25,000 dollar, (3-carat) solitaire ring. He absolutely loves the ring, and upon asking Patty to marry him, she immediately accepts. Three weeks into the engagement, Patty and Johnny have a severe argument about their hometown sports team and, believing their differences to be too severe, decide to call off the engagement. Patty tells Johnny she doesn’t plan on returning the engagement ring and is hoping to sell the ring and pay for a semester of college tuition. Johnny runs home and tells his mother, who is an outstanding divorce and property lawyer in the area.
To the dismay of the above mentioned Patty, the engagement ring is not hers to keep. And Johnny shall soon have his gargantuan diamond back.
Why is this?
Under Ohio law, there are limitations on engagement rings. Ohio treats these rings as “conditional” gifts, meaning that since they were given in consideration of marriage, that “condition” must be met in order for the engagement ring to remain with the donee. If this condition is not met, then the ring or the value of the ring must be returned to the donor.
This has been established through quite a few court decisions. In the majority rule established in Cooper v Smith the court finds that absent and agreement to the contrary, engagement rings are seen as conditional to marriage and must be returned after an engagement is broken.
The rule is a bit funny though as it only applies to engagement rings. Take for example, if we added into the story above that Johnny also gave Patty a brand new laptop for college. This gift, even if it was given under the pretenses that Patty and Johnny were to be married, is not returnable to Johnny.
In Wion v. Henderson, the court did hold that an engagement ring is a conditional gift; they also reviewed the majority standard that engagement rings must be returned when requested. After reviewing this, they held that a donee may keep the ring if the engagement is broken unjustifiably.
This has been a frequently debated issue under Ohio law, and most courts choose not to enforce this because it is very hard to determine “fault” and what is exactly considered “unjustifiable.” Take for example, we added another line to the story. Before Johnny proposed to Patty, Johnny told his parents that he was planning on breaking Patty’s heart and had no intention to marry her. His plans were to allow Patty and her family to front a large bill for the wedding and hire an expensive band. On the wedding day, Johnny just wouldn’t show up, hoping to ruin Patty’s family’s financials.
If this scenario were to happen, Patty would be allowed to keep the ring under this minority rule as this would be considered unjustifiable; and retention of the engagement ring would allow Patty to pay for wedding expenses incurred.
The other exceptions to this scenario is when the parties either contract that engagement ring doesn’t have to be returned after the engagement is called off (which yes, does seem odd); or if after the engagement is broken, the parties sign a release of all legal claims towards each other and let the issue alone.
Engagment Ring Ownership Conclusion:
Concluding this article, unless you’re engaged to a scam artist or a very morally wronged person, you shouldn’t plan on keeping the engagement ring after you call off the engagement. Most common scenario is you give it back.
Thanks to our law clerk Jason Irick, for his assistance researching and writing this blog article, “Engagement Ring Blues”. Excellent job Jason!
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Robert L. Mues
Robert Mues is the managing partner of Dayton, Ohio, law firm, Holzfaster, Cecil, McKnight & Mues, and has received the highest rating from the Martindale-Hubbell Peer Review for Ethical Standards and Legal Ability. Mr. Mues is also a founding member of the "International Academy of Attorneys for Divorce over 50" blog.