The question has been popped and the ring was given, but in some cases either one party -- or both -- may decide to call off the wedding. As you go about disentangling your lives, one concern may be the significant purchase of an engagement ring. Technically speaking the ring was a gift, which means the courts generally do not get involved. However, many courts, specifically the ones in California, consider it a conditional one. Who gets to keep possession of the ring depends on one very important factor.
Who Called It Off
Because California determined that engagement rings are conditional gifts based upon an agreement to marry, if the parties call off the wedding the "contract" is terminated. Who gets the ring, then, depends on who called off the wedding. If the purchaser is the one who calls off the wedding, he relinquishes his right to claim ownership of the ring. Likewise, if the recipient calls off the wedding, she must give the ring back to her ex-fiance.
When It's Unanimous
Perhaps both parties have unanimously decided to call off the wedding. At that point, the purchaser would be entitled to recover the ring. If your split is amicable, you can work out a compromise between each other. Perhaps the purchaser has no interest in keeping the ring, and would prefer for the recipient to keep it as the gift it was intended to be. Likewise, the recipient may decide to give back the ring, with no further use for the gift now that the wedding has been canceled.
Etiquette vs. Law
Whether you return the ring or not depends more on culture and etiquette than law, as many are not aware of any particulars when it comes to the possession of an engagement ring. Etiquette guru Emily Post states that it is in proper taste for the recipient to return the ring no matter who called off the wedding. Conventional wisdom however agrees with California law: if the giver calls off the wedding, the recipient has the legal right to keep the ring.
Perhaps the split was not amicable and the giver would like to reclaim the ring, but the recipient refuses. According to California Civil Code Section 1590, courts are required to consider "the circumstances surrounding the breakup" in order to determine ownership of the ring. This supports the "conditional gift" concept, that would give the giver the right to legally reclaim the ring in the event the conditions of the gift, or marriage, is not met, and the matter would be settled in family court.
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