Talk about the engagement ending prematurely and resulting legal status of the ring are not usually part of the wedding proposal, but should they be? According to a 2003 Time magazine article, 20 to 25% of engagements are broken annually in the United States. An article published by Business Insider, states that this year, Texans will spend $8,194 on average for an engagement ring. Traditionally, a person saves up to purchase a ring or finances the purchase and then gives the ring away in the course of making a romantic proposal. But who gets the engagement ring if the couple parts ways before getting married? The person who gave the ring will inevitably argue that it should be returned “because the wedding is off and I spent a small fortune. I never would have purchased the ring or given it away if I knew we weren’t going to get married.” The person receiving the ring will argue, “It’s mine, it was given to me.” Giving an engagement ring is different from traditional gift giving scenarios (e.g. birthday or Christmas gifts), where the person giving the gift has no expectations that acceptance implies some future commitment from the recipient.
Under Texas law, engagement rings are not treated as traditional gifts. In addition to being a symbol of two persons being engaged, an engagement ring is a symbol or token of their pledge and agreement to marry. Unless the engaged couple entered into a binding agreement concerning the ring, it is subject to the conditional-gift rule (marriage is the condition that must be satisfied before the gift belongs to the recipient). In Texas, however, the conditional-gift rule is “fault based.” In other words, when the engagement is called off, the person who is not at fault for ending the engagement gets the ring. If the couple mutually agrees to call the wedding off, the ring should be returned. Fault in breaking the engagement is easy to determine in situations where one person says to the other, “you’ve done nothing wrong, I just don’t want to marry you.”
Disputes over who is at fault for a broken engagement are more difficult to resolve when one person does something to cause the other person to end the engagement. In one of the few Texas appellate opinions that directly addresses this issue, a man broke off his engagement because he “felt like she had some sexual hang-ups. [He] felt that she had some previous general issues with men, and she also had a very volatile temper.” He made no additional attempt to justify his action; he did not contend that she was at fault in ending the engagement; and he unequivocally admitted the decision to end the engagement was his. As a result, the court found that he was at fault for breaking the engagement and she got to keep the ring. However, the court’s reasoning suggests that had he claimed she was at fault and shown that her conduct justified his decision to end the engagement, the outcome may have been different. But what type of conduct justifies ending an engagement and how is fault assigned? Breaking an engagement due to infidelity or abuse would probably be an easy case to decide. The bad actor would be at fault and the innocent party would be justified in ending the engagement. What about disagreements over whether to have children or over finances? What about more petty differences? Where is the line drawn? In Texas, the law remains unsettled.
Some states apply the conditional-gift rule without considering fault. Those states reason that it is practically impossible to determine “fault” in the break-up of an engagement or whether a particular break-up was justified, and engagements are meant to be a period of evaluation, and a party should not be penalized for ending a doomed relationship. However, in Texas, unless the couple enters into a binding agreement concerning the ring, courts will apply the fault-based conditional-gift rule when considering who gets the ring after a broken engagement.
If you are planning to slip a family heirloom on your loved one’s finger or just want some insurance, consider having a binding written agreement prepared and signed before proposing. As for broaching the subject with your soon-to-be fiancé(e), good luck.
This article is not comprehensive and is not intended as legal advice. This article also does not address the legal status of the ring after marriage. Additionally, laws change regularly and are subject to different interpretation.