Some courts hold that an engagement ring is a conditional gift that becomes an absolute ( effective) gift only on marriage. Other courts conclude that when an engagement ring is given to the donee,...

Some courts hold that an engagement ring is a conditional gift that becomes an absolute ( effective) gift only on marriage. Other courts conclude that when an engagement ring is given to the donee, the donee should have full ownership rights in the property. Where do you stand on this issue? Why?

Asked on by berty63

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Stephen Holliday | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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Well, just as marriages are by nature complicated, the issue of whether an engagement ring is an outright gift or a conditional gift is also complicated.  Although there are exceptions, most courts in which the right to an engagement ring has been litigated rule in favor of the concept that the engagement ring is a conditional gift--that is, it is given in promise of a future condition to be met--and should be returned if the marriage ceremony does not take place.  However, the Montana State Supreme Court, in Albinger v. Harris, 2002 WL 1226858 (Mont. 2002), ruled that the giving of an engagement ring is an unconditional action.

The determination of whether an engagement ring is an unconditional or conditional gift is more properly left to the two individual involved than to the courts.  Only the people involved understand each other's state-of-mind and intent.  Courts can infer intent, but court's can rarely know intent after an event has occurred.  What some courts have done, which seems like a reasonable approach to a problem in human dynamics, is to try to determine the cause of the break in the engagement "contract."  If, for example, the woman decides not to go forward with the marriage, then some courts have sided with the man on the common sense theory that the man is not at fault and is therefore entitled to the engagement ring.  Conversely, if the man is found to be "at fault," the ring may stay with the woman.  

The judicial determination of fault, however, is itself full of problems because, in matters of the heart, "fault" may not even be a relevant concept--human dynamics are often not susceptible to the reduction of fault and no fault.  Again, court's can discover actions, but those actions may or may not disclose someone's true intent.

Under all but rare circumstances--a pre-nuptial agreement that specifies what happens to an engagement ring-- if a man gives an engagement ring to a woman, he should be prepared not to get it back if the marriage ceremony does not take place--no matter what the reason or who is "at fault."  Some life lessons do not cost anything; some cost the price of a ring.

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