Last year, I proposed to my girlfriend and gave her an engagement ring. She unexpectedly called off the wedding last week. I spent a lot of money on the ring and don’t think it would be fair for her to keep it. But she insists it’s hers and refuses to return it. What should I do?
When a wedding gets called off, the question of who gets to keep the engagement ring is among the most common. Although North Carolina has not directly addressed this issue, the concept of “conditional” gifts helps inform the answer. When an engagement ring is given, there is an implied condition that there will be a marriage. If the parties consummate the marriage, that condition is met. This situation is discussed more below.
So what happens if the marriage is called off? In this case, the condition was not met. A North Carolina court is likely to follow the property law concept of “implied conditions” and order that the gift be returned to the giver. But that is not a hard and fast rule. An ex-fiance may be able to argue that the ring was given unconditionally, and should therefore remain hers even after the wedding is called off. Although this is an uphill battle, it’s best that you speak with an attorney if your ex is contending this.
Be careful that the ring actually is an “engagement” ring and not just a simple gift. Let’s suppose for a moment that you gave the ring for a Valentine’s Day gift but you did not propose. Maybe you’ve discussed marriage with your significant other but haven’t actually popped the question. Although you may try to argue that the two of you got engaged, if in fact you didn’t, the ring is probably hers. That’s because in North Carolina, a simple gift does not have to be returned.
Courts in North Carolina, following property law concepts, might not consider any fault-based arguments. As an example, what if you gave the engagement ring and then you were the one who called off the marriage? Or, what if you cheated on your fiance and she called it off because of your misbehavior? The fact remains that the wedding didn’t happen and so the condition was not met. Therefore, at least under current law, you will probably get the ring back.
A similar issue arises when husband and wife divorce and the engagement ring has to be distributed to one spouse or the other. Rings, like any other piece of jewelry, are subject to North Carolina’s equitable distribution laws. Once the marriage happens, the condition is met, the gift is complete, and the ring becomes the separate property of the wife.
By the way, if the ring is a family heirloom, you should consider a prenuptial agreement to guarantee the ring gets returned upon divorce.
North Carolina law remains unclear on the exact question you raised. Future legislation or family court decisions may provide clarity, but your best bet for now is to argue the property law angle. If you’re having difficulty convincing the ex to return your ring, speak to a family law attorney for further guidance.
Disclaimer: The information contained in this article is general in nature and not to be taken as legal advice, nor to establish an attorney-client relationship between the reader and Laura H. Budd or Weaver | Budd, Attorneys at Law. Submit your questions for The Fine Print to: firstname.lastname@example.org