It’s a commonly repeated refrain when a breakup occurs following an engagement or marriage: “You better keep that ring!” But, what legal right does a former spouse or former fiancé actually have to retain an engagement ring at the conclusion of a relationship? Or, put the other way, what legal right does a former spouse or former fiancé have to ask for the return of an engagement ring at the conclusion of a relationship? Notably, in Ohio, the answer to that question depends—like most things in life—on timing.
Gifts in a Relationship
Generally speaking, gifts demonstrated to have been made to one spouse or partner alone—either before a marriage or during a marriage—are considered, as a matter of law, to be the recipient’s separate property upon the later termination of the relationship. However, an engagement ring presents a somewhat unique exception to that general principle.
Symbolic Nature of Engagement Rings
With respect to an engagement ring, Ohio courts place great weight on the symbolic nature of the same. Indeed, in Ohio, an engagement ring is viewed as a gift in contemplation of marriage, or a conditional gift. What does this mean? In its simplest terms, this means that the gift of the engagement ring does not “vest” until the marriage occurs. In this way, the proposing party’s gift of the engagement ring and the fiancé’s acceptance of the engagement ring represents a promise by the couple to participate in a future marriage. Only when the marriage takes place is the prerequisite condition to the gift fulfilled, and thus, the gift of the ring to the recipient spouse becomes complete.
So, what does this mean for a former spouse’s or former fiancé’s ability to keep the ring upon a breakup?
Has the Marriage Occurred?
Simply stated, if the marriage has already occurred at the time of the breakup, then the engagement ring is now the separate property of the recipient spouse. In this way, the ring is the recipient spouse’s to keep, and the gifting spouse no longer has any legal claim to the same.
Breakup Before Marriage
However, if the marriage has not occurred at the time of the breakup, then the engagement ring remains the separate property of the gifting party, and thus, he or she is legally entitled to request the return of the ring from the recipient. Generally, this remains true regardless of whether one party was at fault for the termination of the relationship.
Of course, as is true in most cases, there can be fact-specific exceptions to this rule. But, in most circumstances—and in most Ohio courts—the aforementioned represents the appropriate analysis when presented with the age-old question of: “Who keeps the ring?”