Rules of Engagement: State Law and the Presumption of the Wedding Ring “Gift”

By Austin J. Griffin* | Staff Writer 

The holiday season approaches and many out there will be leaning in close to their sweethearts, bracing against the chilly winds.  Some will even be pining for a longer sort of “lean in” – an engagement.  However, if the relationship cools, they may want to consider where that engagement ring may go.

As the New York Post reported this past October, a New York judge recently ruled that a woman “who broke up with her boyfriend [could] keep a $10,200 ‘engagement ring’ because her paramour didn’t make a marriage proposal when he [gave her the ring].”  All the man said was that “it was a gift for being a great woman, a good mother of his child.”  No wedding was expected for the confused couple at the time – the woman herself unclear whether she was engaged.  All the ex-boyfriend had to do, however, was propose so that the gift became one “given in contemplation of marriage” and therefore returnable.

The judge’s New York ruling provides questions that may reach many unhappy couples.  What, legally, is an engagement ring?  What does the law say about keeping the ring after a broken engagement?  In order to prevent such a costly mistake, this article will attempt to give a brief overview of the law pertaining to “gifts in contemplation of marriage” generally, the law in North Carolina, and how a North Carolina court might rule on this case.  To start, we’ll consider the idea of the gift itself.

What’s a Gift, Anyway?

The law of gifts is divided into two distinct paths, depending on the state of the donor or person giving the gift.  These two paths are inter vivos and causa mortis. Now, gifts causa mortis only apply when the donor is near to death, so they can be ignored here.  Because the donor tends to be alive when proposing marriage, an engagement ring is an inter vivos gift. According to Harvard fellow Ruth Sarah Lee, under common law, the elements of a valid inter vivos gift are:

“(1) an intention to give and surrender title to and dominion over the property (i.e. donative intent), (2) delivery of the property to the done, and (3) acceptance by the donee [gift receiver].”

Normally, this is not an issue with engagement rings given in contemplation of marriage because the donor has every intention to give the property to the donee, and the donee accepts it, understanding that an engagement has occurred.  However, the engagement ring is not your average gift.   

Engagement Rings, Especially.

 According to the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, the law is split amongst the states about engagement rings.  A majority of courts see the engagement ring as an “implied conditional gift.”   This means that “when the marriage fails to ensue, the condition has not been met, and the donor is entitled to recover the engagement ring.”  However, other courts require express conditioning, such as a verbal statement on the part of the donor.  In those jurisdictions, failure to expressly condition the ring by saying something like “I love you, but you know I want that ring back if this does not work out” would leave the donee with an expensive parting gift.  Still others, a minority, treat the ring as an unconditional gift – the donee keeps it no matter what.

In addition, If only one party breaks the engagement, fault is considered in awarding or returning the engagement ring in some states.  In a fault consideration, the jury is called upon to decide who was actually at fault in terminating the engagement – with the not-at-fault party being given the ring.

"Se acabó el hogar" [He ran home]

“Se acabó el hogar” [He ran home]

In a no-fault jurisdiction, upon the engagement’s end, the gift is given to whomever it belongs under the state law.  The no-fault stance is poetically demonstrated in the Pennsylvania case Pavlicic v. Vogtsberger:

“A gift given. . . on condition that [ a donee] embark on the sea of matrimony with [the donor] is no different from a gift based on the condition that the donee sail on any other sea.”

The law of engagement rings is incredibly, perhaps dangerously, varied.  The safest action is for the donor to look at the state law of where the gift will occur.  Therefore, we turn to North Carolina and its law.

North Carolina’s Engagement Law

Although some sources state that in North Carolina, the ring is a conditional gift, there are no North Carolina appellate cases on gifts in contemplation of marriage.[i]   Usually, North Carolina courts decide the status of a gift based on the time at which it is given, among other circumstances.[ii] If the donor gives the gift after the engagement, courts usually consider this a conditional gift.[iii]  Implied conditions, however, are recognized in North Carolina, and fault may be also considered.[iv]  In other words, expect a very fact-intensive decision until binding precedent has been established.

End Results: New York v. North Carolina

Using the same facts from the New York case, North Carolina could very well come out the same way.  Assuming North Carolina follows the majority position of conditional gift, there would have to be some indication that the donee was aware of the engagement.  No clear proposal and confusion amongst the parties as to their own status may prevent an engagement from being found – thereby defaulting to an unconditional gift.

In conclusion, then, it is probably best to propose while giving an engagement ring in North Carolina, rather than leaving it to fate like the couple in New York.  Although the law may not be settled, evidence of the engagement may tip the scales in the favor of the donor.  Until then, grab some cocoa with your sweetheart and wait for the courts to rule.



*About the Author: Austin Griffin is a third-year law student at the Wake Forest School of Law. He holds a B.A. in English from the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida, with foci in Medieval Literature and Rhetoric.  Upon graduation, he plans on entering into a legal career centered on sustainability and renewable energy.

[i] 1-1 Lee’s North Carolina Family Law § 1.8

[ii] Id.

[iii] Id.

[iv] Id.