We’ve been asked the question “who gets the engagement ring?” by a number of clients whose engagements have been terminated prior to marriage. As so often is the case in family law, the answer to that question is “it depends.”
The starting point in the legal analysis is a Massachusetts case from the late 1950’s. In DeCicco v. Barker, 339 Mass. 457, 458, 159 N.E.2d 534 (1959), the court stated “[w]here a ring is given in contemplation of marriage, it may be a gift in the nature of a pledge, given upon the implied condition that the marriage occurs.” The court went on to explain that “where an engagement is terminated without the fault of the donor, he or she may recover the ring.”
Later, in a 1995 case out of the Worcester Superior Court called Poirier v. Raad, the plaintiff tried to broaden the rule extracted from the DeCicco decision to assert that a donor may not recover the ring if he or she terminated the engagement. But the court in that case refused to adopt such a broad rule, and, instead, it stated the person who terminates an engagement is not necessarily “at fault.” The court went on to note that “[s]ome engagements may be terminated by mutual agreement,” and “[s]ome engagements may be terminated by one party because of the other party’s improper behavior….”
So, basically, a court’s decision on whether a plaintiff can recover an engagement ring depends on whether the plaintiff can prove that the engagement was terminated through no fault of his or her own. If so, he or she will likely be able to recover the engagement ring. Of course, the cost of litigation, and having to incur legal fees in order to properly prepare for and conduct a contested trial could exceed the value of the ring. In such a case, seeking to recover the ring through formal legal action may not be in the client’s best interest.