I have encountered the question of who owns an engagement ring, the giver or the receiver, more often over drinks at a party and met with laughter than during a client consultation when it is met with trepidation, but it happens. The question is especially important if the engagement ring is also a family heirloom. Imagine if the engagement ring used is a 100 year old 2.0 carat Tiffany’s engagement ring originally given by your grandfather to your grandmother, both of whom are now deceased. The implications of the engagement, especially if it suddenly ends, quickly become very real, serious, and relevant.

In 1999, in Lindh v. Surman, 742 A.2d 643 (Pa. 1999), the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania definitively answered the question central to this article and ruled that engagement rings are the exception to the general rules. It held that an engagement ring is a conditional gift to the receiver. The condition is the marriage of the parties. In other words, the engagement ring is a gift to the receiver, but ownership only transfers if the marriage actually happens. Upon the marriage of the parties, it becomes a gift between spouses and, as a result, according to 23 Pa.C.S. § 3501(a)(3), is marital property now owned by both spouses. If the relationship ends before the parties are married, then the engagement ring should be promptly returned to the giver, without any need for compensation.

The Court in Lindh also clarified that the reason for why the parties did not get married is irrelevant. In other words, the Court does not care who fault it is that the engagement was called off. The Court stated, “By way of illustration, should courts be asked to determine which of the following grounds for breaking an engagement is fault or justified? (1) The parties have nothing in common; (2) one party cannot stand prospective in-laws; (3) a minor child of one of the parties is hostile to and will not accept the other party; (4) an adult child of one of the parties will not accept the other party; (5) the parties’ pets do not get along; (6) a party was too hasty in proposing or accepting the proposal; (7) the engagement was a rebound situation which is now regretted; (8) one party has untidy habits that irritate the other; or (9) the parties have religious differences. The list could be endless.” See id. at 646 (citing Heiman v. Parrish, 262 Kan. 926, 942 P.2d 631, 637 (1997)). As a result, the test for ownership is straightforward: any transition of ownership is contingent on whether the couple gets married and, if they wed, the engagement ring is jointly owned by both spouses.

If you or a loved one has questions regarding the legality of an engagement ring, please do not hesitate to contact me at mhovey@gmail.com.

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