Do you have to give back an engagement ring after a breakup?

Engagement rings can be an asset all until themselves. The cost of the ‘perfect ring’ can be anywhere from $1,500.00 to well over a million dollars. It all depends on the type of metal used as well as the cut and clarity of the diamond or other precious stones.

Under the circumstances, it is not uncommon for a separating couple to get fixed on the value of an engagement ring and whether to have to legally give the ring back.

In this article, our family lawyers examine legal cases where couples have disputed the ownership of the ring after breaking up.

In case of Papathanasopoulos v Vacopoulos (2007), the Court examined the question being if the engagement ring was given in contemplation of marriage, at what stage might the ring be returned?

Andrew and Vicki where to be married on 6 August 2005, and in anticipation of the marriage, Andrew presented Vicky with an engagement ring valued at $15,250.00. 10 days later, Andrew and Vicki separated, Vicki took off the ring and said to Andrew – “the wedding is off. Here, take the ring, I don’t want it”. Andrew said to Vicki “the ring is a gift, you keep it”.

As neither party wanted the ring, at Vicki’s direction, her father threw the ring in the bin, together with other items that Vicki reminded of Andrew.

Andrew later regretted his decision and wanted the engagement ring returned and eventually commenced court proceedings to recover the ring, or its equivalent value. The basis for the action was that the ring was a conditional gift upon the parties marrying. As the parties did not marry, the conditions had not been met and therefore, Andrew was the rightful owner of the ring.

In response, Vicki argued that the engagement ring was an unconditional gift as Andrew refused to accept the ring after separation and therefore the ring was hers, despite the parties not marrying.

To assist the Court in making a final determination, the Court undertook and extensive review of the principles in the case of Cohen v Stellar (1926), being:

  • If a woman who has received a ring in contemplation of marriage refuses to fulfill the conditions of the gift, she must return it.
  • If a man has, without a recognized legal justification, refuses to carry out his promise of marriage, he cannot demand the return of the engagement ring. Examples of legal justification include but may not be limited to other parties with violent predisposition or infidelity.
  • It matters not in law that the repudiation of the promise may turn out to be the ultimate advantage of both parties. A judge must apply the existing law as to the limits of justification for breach.
  • If the engagement to marry is dissolved by mutual consent, then in the absence of an agreement to the contrary, the engagement ring and gifts like gifts must be returned by each party to the other.

At first instance, the Court found that although Vicki rejected the gift (ie the engagement ring), and that she was in possession of it, she did not own it. Therefore, she was not entitled to instruct her father to throw the ring away.

On appeal, the Court agreed with the previous decision and confirmed that ‘an engagement had many characteristics of a commercial bargain. It is governed in large part by the principles of law applicable to ordinary contracts.’ Further:

“A like result to that I have already stated will follow if an engagement ring be regarded as a pledge or deposit for the fulfillment of a contract. A person who wrongly refuses to carry out a bargain will lose his deposit.” (citations omitted).

The present case is the reverse of that situation. If without legal justification the woman refuses to carry out her promise she cannot keep and must return the ring.

This means that Vicki’s actions of ending the engagement, meant that she lost her entitlement to the engagement ring. The fact that Andrew refused to take back the engagement ring was not a factor that was considered.

Vicki was ordered to pay Andrew the value of the engagement ring, as well as his legal costs.

At PCL Lawyers our family lawyers can help with a wide range of family and property settlement matters. Our team are experts in handling matters to achieve a successful resolution.

If you need advice in relation to a family law matter contact one of our family lawyers today to see how we can help.

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