One of my early cases as an attorney concerned an older man engaged to a younger woman. She broke of the engagement and he wanted the engagement ring back. It brought back memories to see the article in the October 3, 2008, New York Times by Nadine Brozman entitled “If Things Fall Apart, Who Gets the Ring?” You can see the entire article at
Ms. Brozan say, “Chivalry aside, in recent years courts have almost always held that the ring goes back to the buyer, no matter the circumstances. The premise is that the engagement ring is a conditional gift — the condition being that a marriage take place. And if it does not, the agreement is rendered null and void. Furthermore, courts have ruled that it does not matter who broke the engagement, the donor or the recipient. “If you have no-fault divorce, you must have no-fault engagements,” said Joanne Ross Wilder, a principal in the Pittsburgh law firm Wilder & Mahood. In 1999 she won a ruling in a Pennsylvania case that is viewed as precedent setting: the ring should be returned to the donor. “Before this case, there was a split of opinion in the United States as to whether the donor should get the ring back if he broke the engagement without just cause,” Ms. Wilder said. “If you get into who was at fault in deciding whether the ring should remain with the donee or return to the donor, you do a counterintuitive analysis. Isn’t the purpose of an engagement to be a trial period and isn’t it better to break an engagement than a marriage? Whose fault is irrelevant?”
On the other hand she goes on to quote Letitia Baldrige, the etiquette expert who says, “the person who breaks the engagement is responsible for making good. If the woman breaks it, she should send the ring back immediately. If it is the man, he should say, ‘Of course you keep the ring. Should the ring be a family heirloom, the woman should return it. But then he should buy her another piece of jewelry or simply give her a credit at a jewelry shop. Nice people do that.”
I have also found who gets the engagement ring is a hot issue in divorce mediation. It can also be diagnostic. I will let you guess which attitude means what! The value of the ring makes the issue even more complicated. Inevitably, the ring is worth less than what was paid for it and the couple argues, as they do with many assets, if it should be valued at the replacement value or the value you could sell it for.
We are known for divorce mediation but do other types of mediation. Perhaps we should also do broken engagement mediation.
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