Fox Family Lawyers
Cynthia Moseley Fox
Attorney at Law
7751 Carondelet Avenue,
Suite 700
Clayton, Missouri 63105
(St. Louis)

Can the Woman Keep The Ring If She Breaks The Engagement?

Occasionally, a young woman will ask whether she has a legal obligation to return her engagement ring after the plans to marry have fallen apart. And, each time, I have said “it depends” on the exact circumstances of her engagement and how the court interprets those circumstances, assuming the question ever goes to trial.


In Missouri, there have been two separate lines of case law on this matter. One holds that an engagement ring is simply a gift and that a gift once given does not impose on its receiver any legal obligation to return it no matter what may transpire subsequently. Thus, the man that presents his “intended” with an engagement ring has no more right to expect its return when the nuptials are cancelled than does a dinner guest that provides the host with a very fine bottle of wine expecting it to be served, if that wine never makes it to the table.


However, it is equally well accepted that a ring given in combination with a proposal of marriage is a “conditional gift” given in the expectation that the two will marry. Should that marriage not occur, these precedents might require the ring to be returned, depending on who broke the engagement. If the person receiving the ring breaks the engagement, then the ring must be returned.


A case was recently decided that further refines the conditional gift interpretation. A young man presented his beloved with a very fine ring, only to later break the engagement because she wasn’t the “right one”, adding also that his parents had pressured him into ending the relationship. After she refused to return the ring, he took her to court. (A cad twice over!) In the end, justice prevailed as the court held that since the ring “donor” terminated the engagement, and the “donee” had been willing to go through with marriage, she was entitled to keep her ring.


So, why is there this division in Missouri case histories? And, how can an earnest young man protect his hard earned investment in a diamond ring should the relationship fall apart short of the altar? To the former question, I really don’t have a very good answer…the circumstances and facts of the cases that have led to the varying outcomes seem as different as the judges that decided them. On the latter question, though, the best protection would be obtained with a written agreement between the man and woman that specifies that the ring is to be returned should the engagement be broken, no matter by whom. (Yes, I realize that adding this “condition” will likely dampen, if not extinguish, the magic of the moment, so prospective grooms would be wise to consider carefully how and when they broach the topic.) 


All of this brings up other interesting questions: Are prospective brides and grooms obligated to return their wedding gifts if the marriage never occurs? And, if not, who is the owner of gifts given to them as a couple, such as a silver service given to “Mr. and Mrs. Jones”, when such an entity was never formed? I am not aware of any case law on these two issues, because I suspect that in most situations, the gifts are returned or, when not, there is not enough at stake to warrant the expense and effort of a lawsuit.


Next week, I’ll write about how to keep gifts given to one person in marriage…like a son or daughter…from falling into the hands of the other spouse should the two divorce.