Relationship Articles

What happens with the engagement ring when “I do” becomes “I don’t”?

January 18, 2018 - Relationship Articles

Divorce Attorney Lloyd C. Rosen explains what happens with the engagement ring after a breakup, under New York law.

The age-old question: who gets the engagement ring if the engagement is called off? While this may seem a trivial question, the engagement ring can often represent a very significant asset, with high monetary or sentimental value.



If you seek advice from famous columnist, Miss Manners, her response would be simply, “The laws of etiquette absolutely require you to return an engagement ring when the engagement is broken, for whatever reason, and by however nasty a fiancé.” However, New York law, as with most other states, is not quite as simple under all circumstances. An engagement ring can be given as a conditional gift, or as an outright gift. The difference is critical in answering this questions under New York law.


New York State Law: What happens with the engagement ring?

When given as a conditional gift, the ring is given at the time marriage is proposed, in exchange for the promise to marry. Essentially, the contractual understanding between the parties is “marry me and the ring is yours.” Thus, the promise to marry is the consideration (the quid pro quo) for possession and ownership of the ring. Once the marriage takes place (“I do”), the contractual obligation is fulfilled and the engagement ring become the property of the giftee. If the marriage is called off, by either party for any reason, the consideration is absent and the giftee is obligated to return the ring to the gifter.

what happens with the engagement ring

When the engagement ring is given at the time of a traditional gift-exchanging event, such as a birthday, Valentine’s Day, anniversary, etc., the engagement ring can be viewed as an outright gift, given at the time of a marriage proposal, but with a gift-giving intent other than in exchange a mere promise to marry. Thus, if the engagement is called-off, the ring remains the property of the giftee. To avoid this quagmire, if popping the question on a gift-exchanging occasion, the gifter may want to consider having an additional gift at the time of the proposal so that the claim can be made that the engagement ring was not given as an outright gift (the alternate gift filled that purpose) and was instead a conditional gift given in exchange for the promise to marry.

divorce lawyer quote

After a marriage ceremony takes place, New York law provides that ownership of an engagement ring given prior to the marriage is deemed the premarital separate property of the recipient in the event of a divorce. However, this clear claim of ownership can become blurred during the course of the marriage. As sometimes occurs, an engagement ring can be modified during a marriage. Maybe the setting is changed or diamonds are added or exchanged for larger or higher quality stones. If this occurs, what would otherwise have been the separate property of the betrothed in the event of a divorce may have been transmuted into marital property (least in part or in its entirety). Thus, the simple issue of “who keeps the ring” becomes less simple.

The giving of an engagement ring thus carries much more consequence than the potential for marriage. Before entering into such a social contract, especially if the ring represents a significant financial investment or great sentimental value such as with a family heirloom, it would be wise to consult with an experienced and knowledgeable attorney to make sure that the marriage proposal has few unintended consequences.

Wisselman & Associates is a highly respected matrimonial and family law firm established in 1976 in Great Neck, NY. Please visit our website at to learn more about our firm and about attorney Lloyd C. Rosen.

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