Can I Keep My Engagement Ring?

Upon the breakdown of a marriage, there are defined laws addressing how marital property is to be divided. But what happens if an engagement doesn’t result in marriage? And who gets to keep the engagement ring?

Each province addresses ring ownership upon the breakdown of an engagement differently. Theoretically, courts have grappled with the concept of gifting and whether an engagement ring should be considered an absolute or conditional gift. Courts have even imported contract law principles in their determination of ownership.

The relative lack of clarity with which this area has been approached by the courts and in the common law has led to some jurisdictions drafting legislation to deal with gifts exchanged before marriage.

For example, section 33 of Ontario’s Marriage Act has codified the common law principle that fault may not be considered where an engagement ring is given in contemplation of marriage or given as a “conditional gift”:

Where one person makes a gift to another in contemplation of or conditional upon their marriage to each other and the marriage fails to take place or is abandoned, the question of whether or not the failure or abandonment was caused by or was the fault of the donor shall not be considered in determining the right of the donor to recover the gift.

A simple application is: if no marriage follows, the ring must be returned to the donor. The justification being that return of the ring puts both parties in the position they were in before the engagement.

Other jurisdictions do not have similar legislation and remain bound by common law. Saskatchewan courts continue to follow precedents which retain historical foundations from 1917 (see Jacobs v Davis, [1917] 2 K.B. 532 at p. 533). Despite the old principle being adapted to apply to all relationships (not just those between a man and a woman), the basic idea is this:

If an individual who has received a ring refuses to fulfill the condition of the gift, they must return it. On the other hand, if the donor of the ring, without “recognized legal justification”, refuses to carry out their promise of marriage, they cannot demand the return of the engagement ring. It does not matter if the breaking of the promise turns out to be the ultimate advantage of both parties (D’Andrea v Schmidt, 2005 SKQB 201).

The legal effect of this common-law principle means that practically, if you break off an engagement, you are not entitled to the ring. Using the heteronormative example, boy proposes to girl, girl ends engagement, he gets to demand return of the ring. Alternatively, boy proposes to girl, boy ends engagement, she gets to keep the ring. In a way, the court has imported some level of fault (at least relating to the relationship ending) as being relevant in determining ring ownership.

As always in the law, there may be exceptions to the rule, but it is easy to see that certain inequities may exist where legislation is strictly adopted. Concepts of fairness may be compromised where a donor is allowed to demand the return of a ring, despite otherwise questionable actions or behaviours leading to the breakdown of an engagement. Alternatively, punishing an engagement ender by denying them the ability to retain an engagement ring might swing too far in the other direction, especially when considering the potential magnitude of cost.

A final option is that an engagement ring may be treated as a true and perfected gift. A judge may consider this the case where the donor says, “even if we never get married, this is a gift to you to remain yours”. This leaves no condition to be ‘fulfilled,’ and the recipient would likely retain ownership of the ring.

Despite this confusing and inconsistent area of the law, courts are apt to consider each case on its merits. We recommend seeking professional legal advice where there are questions related to engagement ring ownership.

This article is intended to provide legal information only, not legal advice.

For further information, please contact:

Tessa Wall
Student at Law
Direct: 306-933-1368
Email: [email protected]

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