If your engagement doesn’t have a happy ending, who gets the ring?

12th February 2024

Considered to be the most romantic day of the year, Valentine's seems the opportune moment ‘to pop the question’ to a significant other. According to jewellery retailers, the average cost of an engagement ring in 2023 was between £1,800 and £2,200.

Unfortunately, not every engagement results in a walk down the aisle, which can cause some ambiguity as to who owns the ring when the relationship breaks down. Factors such as which partner ends the relationship and if the ring is a family heirloom may impact the end decision regarding ownership.

Tom Eastment, Solicitor Apprentice at DAS investigates the complex legal position surrounding ring ownership at the end of a relationship.

If my fiancé breaks off our engagement, can I legally ask for the ring to be returned?

Section 3(3) of the Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1970 specifies that an engagement ring should be regarded as an ‘absolute gift’ and, as such, belongs to the person to whom it was given. The law takes no account of which partner calls off the engagement, so regardless of who broke off the relationship, the ring does not have to be given back.

What if it was specified that it should be returned if the marriage does not happen?

This is the one important exception. If the ring is given on the condition, stated or implied, that it should be returned if the marriage does not go ahead, the ring would have to be given back. However, in practical terms, unless you’ve taken the romantic step of getting that in writing, then it may not be as simple as that.

Does it make a difference if the ring is a family heirloom?

If the ring is a treasured family heirloom, a court would be more likely to assume that there was an implied intention that the ring would be returned if the couple split up. Although, once again, proving that it should be considered as such could be tricky. It is worth noting that the courts do not generally consider subjective factors such as sentimental value and will instead assess the intrinsic value of the engagement ring.

Factors such as which partner ends the relationship and if the ring is a family heirloom may impact the end decision regarding ownership.

Would a pre-nuptial agreement help clarify the ownership of a ring?

Ownership of the ring could be specified in a pre-nuptial agreement drawn up between the couple. Whilst “pre-nups”are not automatically enforceable in the courts of England and Wales, they will be taken into consideration in divorce proceedings if the agreement fulfils certain qualifying criteria. If either partner wanted assurances that the ring would be returned should the marriage be called off, they would need to draft a written agreement specifically to this effect for their other half to sign.  

In general, like many areas of English law, the ownership of engagement rings seems simple on the face of it, but there are one or two catches, and it is very important that couples understand the legal position on ownership to avoid making a break-up more difficult. Fortunately, these contentious issues can often be resolved privately without the need to litigate as we live within a largely romantic and faithful society.

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Disclaimer: This information is for general guidance regarding rights and responsibilities and is not formal legal advice as no lawyer-client relationship has been created. Note that the information was accurate at the time of publication but laws may have since changed.

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