Valentines Day; Harry and Meghan; That Ring and the Rules of Engagement

With the announcement that Prince Harry and American actress Meghan Markle are planning a royal wedding, it seems engagement is on everyone’s mind.

And what is more fun to discuss than the ring? Prince Harry designed a gorgeous sparkler incorporating several diamonds from his late mother Diana’s collection and some new elements (placing the value between $350,000 and priceless).

Should you do the same with your family heirlooms? As with so many wedding plans, that depends! Because, if a love story does not end in a fairy tale, who does the engagement ring belong to?

It’s important at the outset to recognize that there is a difference between what is legally correct and what is societally acceptable behavior. We’ll focus here what the legalities of a decision regarding an engagement ring may be under American matrimonial law, not what Emily Post or one’s own grandmother may say.

In Georgia, as in most states, an engagement ring is considered a conditional gift. In other words, the gift is conditioned on an implied promise to get married. If a marriage occurs, the condition is satisfied, and the receiver can generally claim the gift free and clear of any claim by the giver.

A Few Scenarios

Consider this example: Love Bird #1 designs a bespoke ring and presents it to Love Bird #2. Love Bird #1 hands the ring to Love Bird #2, who places it on the ring finger. A bit later, the couple is canoodling, and Love Bird #1 says, “We should plan a wedding!” Love Bird #2 agrees.

Conditional gift? Arguably, no. The recipient’s argument would go like this: “Love Bird #1 gave me a gift. I accepted the gift. I put it on my hand. It was only after the ring was accepted and on my hand that we discussed marriage. I thought we likely would get married, but that’s not why I accepted the ring.” So, if this hypothetical relationship does not end in marriage, then Love Bird #2 has a legal argument that the ring was given unconditionally.

But compare this second hypothetical: Love Bird #1 designs a bespoke ring and presents it to Love Bird #2 while asking, “Will you marry me?” The gorgeous ring sits in Love Bird #1’s hand expectantly while Love Bird #2 considers the proposal. “Yes, of course!” Then, Love Bird #1 places the ring on Love Bird #2’s finger.

Conditional gift? Arguably, yes. If the relationship does not end in marriage, then Love Bird #2 would likely have to hand back over the ring because it was an engagement ring given on the condition that the relationship would end in marriage, which condition was not fulfilled.

Ending the Engagement

Does it matter who calls off the engagement? Not typically. Many states, including Georgia, South Carolina and New Jersey, follow a “no-fault” rule, meaning it doesn’t matter which party ends the engagement. If it was a conditional gift and the condition is not met, the recipient must return the ring.

Does it change anything if the ring incorporates a family diamond or other family heirloom? Again that phrase: “It depends.” On one hand, some courts have found that incorporating a family heirloom does not change the underlying question of whether the gift was conditional or unconditional.

If it is given unconditionally, the ring can be kept by the gift receiver. If it was conditional, it should be returned. Other courts look at the facts more clearly to determine if there was another condition on the gift, a fact that actually makes the ring more akin to a long-term loan than a gift.

For example, if Love Bird #1 might say, “This is my grandmother’s ring and we will pass it down to our children so it stays in the family.” So even if the ring was not given on the condition of marriage, a judge would likely look at the underlying facts to discern the intent of the donor (Love Bird #1) and order the ring stay with the family as the condition of that gift was keeping the ring in the family.

But what if Love Bird #1 says, “Aren’t we lucky that I don’t have to go buy a new diamond, since my aunt who just got divorced gave me hers?” In that case, even though the diamond may have come from Love Bird #1’s family, it isn’t really a family heirloom and, looking at the facts, a judge may order that the recipient could keep the ring in the event of a broken engagement.

What’s a Lover to Do?

The challenge in disputes over engagement rings is that many of these conversations — which memorialize intent and condition — are not written down in the heat of the moment. Should such issues be at the forefront of your (or your family’s mind), a gift giver is well-advised to speak with legal counsel. Depending on the value (real or personal), it may be worth the effort and unromantic conversation to hire counsel to draft a basic agreement making the ownership of the ring — and conditions of ownership — clear.

Failing that kind of first-level documentation, second-level testimony could become important, but memories fail and change, especially when family lines are drawn.

After all, isn’t everything fair in love and war?


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