When you give or receive an engagement ring, there is hope that the relationship will last forever. And sometimes it does. And sometimes it doesn't. What does a couple do with the engagement ring when the relationship ends? In New York, who gets the engagement ring isn’t a matter of good manners and etiquette. It’s a legal matter established in New York code.
New York law states that who is legally entitled to the engagement ring depends on whether the breakup occurs before or after the marriage.
Calling Off an Engagement
The law in New York about engagement rings is straightforward when the breakup happens before the marriage takes place. The ring is considered a “conditional gift” given on the condition that there will be a marriage. The person receiving the ring has the right to wear the symbol of their upcoming union.
If the wedding is called off and the marriage does not happen, the receiver no longer has the right to wear or possess the ring. New York law requires the recipient to return the ring to the person who gave it to them.
Like most things in life, there are a couple of exceptions:
- Still Married. The law does not see how one person can promise to marry another when they are still married to someone else. If someone proposes to another when their divorce is not final (or haven’t even filed in some cases), then the conditional aspect of giving the ring for marriage is not valid. The person who receives the ring is then entitled to keep it should they part ways.
- True Gift. Proposing with an engagement ring on the other person’s birthday, at Christmas, or on Valentine’s Day is fairly common. The day is then twice as special. The giver also has the bonus of one gift counting for both occasions. When an engagement ring is given on a special day or holiday, the ring is then viewed as a true gift and not just a conditional gift. In these cases, the recipient may be able to keep it.
The reason behind the breakup is irrelevant in New York law. The courts do not consider fault in determining whether an engagement ring should be returned. So even if the giver of the ring cheats, they still have the right to get the ring back.
Ending a Marriage
Laws are open to interpretation. Judges in New York have sometimes determined a ring to be separate personal property while others have considered the engagement ring as marital property. Circumstances around the marriage and the ring can play a role in the court’s interpretation of the law. The distinction is important because we are an equitable distribution state where most personal property is not subject to division in a divorce.
Engagement Ring as Marital Property
Some judges interpret the law to mean that the title to the ring does not vest until there is a marriage. This interpretation follows that the ring then wasn’t acquired until after the marriage, making the engagement ring marital property. Marital property is subject to New York's equitable distribution laws. This law requires the court to fairly distribute the marital property to the spouses as determined by the specific circumstances of the divorce.
The engagement ring can also become marital property in the eyes of some judges if the ring is modified in some way during the marriage. Changing a setting, upgrading a diamond, and adding stones during the marriage may transmute the engagement ring into marital property.
Engagement Ring as Personal Property
When the marriage happens, the conditions of the engagement ring have been met. The recipient has completed the contract, so to speak, and is now the full owner of the ring. There is even more support for this interpretation if the ring was also given in conjunction with a holiday, birthday, or another special day, which made the ring a true gift from the beginning.
The ring will stay the property of the recipient spouse in a divorce as it is not subject to equitable distribution. The giver cannot recover the cost or value of the ring.
Personal property is not always given to the recipient in the eyes of the law. If the ring is a family heirloom, the jewelry could be considered an inheritance of the giver. The spouse who received it may have to return it.
If you want to take the ambiguity out of who keeps the ring, consider having a prenuptial agreement drafted.
Experienced Counsel for Property Division
Property division through equitable distribution can be one of the most complex aspects of a divorce. As the engagement ring example shows, property can be argued to be marital or separate property. Having an experienced attorney from the Law Office of Dennis R. Vetrano, Jr., LLC can help present the case for you to keep what you believe is rightfully yours.
Our knowledgeable lawyers can guide you through every aspect of your divorce agreement such as the following:
For help with your prenuptial agreement or divorce, schedule an initial one-on-one consultation with a member of our legal team. Contact us online or call (845) 605-4330.