You called off your engagement—do you keep the ring?
Broken engagements are hard, and so is figuring out what to do with the ring after.
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When I was 23, I did something that no one in my life saw coming: I got engaged.
At the time, the news came as a shock. I had just finished college and had only been dating my then-fiancé for less than a year. I’d also spoken for years of my desire to do public service post-grad, and had been accepted to a national program dedicated to helping under-served communities across the country, which would mean lots of traveling.
How, my friends and family wondered, did a wedding—and then the prospect of a long-distance marriage—fit into these life plans? The truth was, I had no idea, but I fully intended to find out.
Then, about a year and a half after I shocked everyone in my life by getting engaged, I turned around and did it again. Only this time, I announced that my engagement was over and the relationship was officially done for.
Of all the questions that hounded me during the months that followed—who broke up with whom, who was paying for this or that, and so forth—the one that hit the hardest was about the engagement ring. Everyone I knew, from my grandmother to my next-door neighbors, all asked the same thing first. They wanted to know whether or not I was keeping it.
Broken engagements are a complicated issue, and figuring out what to do with an engagement ring once you’ve stopped short of the altar can be even trickier. Beyond the etiquette involved, there are legal considerations to take into account. But here are some important things to keep in mind if you or someone you love has recently called off a wedding and are now unsure of what to do with the engagement ring.
Conditional vs. unconditional gifts: What’s the difference?
“There are generally two ways that courts usually classify engagement rings,” says David Reischer, attorney and CEO of LegalAdvice.com. According to him, they’re considered either an outright (a.k.a., unconditional) or conditional gift, and it’s important to understand the difference if you’re considering keeping a ring after a broken engagement.
An unconditional gift is something that is given without expectation of getting anything in return, whereas a conditional gift is a present given to someone based on the promise of a future action that’s meant to take place, like a wedding.
Depending on where you live in the U.S., laws can vary. “Many state laws consider an engagement ring a conditional gift that is based on a future wedding ceremony,” Reischer notes. In conditional states like the ones listed below, if there’s no marriage, the ring has to be returned, regardless of how the relationship ended:
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- New York
However, in some areas, engagement rings are considered implied conditional gifts, meaning whoever ends the relationship forfeits the right to keep the rock. Implied conditional states include:
Montana is the only state in the U.S. where engagement rings are considered unconditional gifts, meaning it’s up to the recipient to decide what happens after a broken engagement.
Beyond the conditional vs. unconditional gift debate, there are several other legal factors that courts tend to consider when determining who has the right to hold onto a ring, Reischer says, including the giver’s intent and the recipient’s acceptance of the ring. If you or someone you love is considering holding onto a ring, you may want to consult with a trained attorney or legal professional so you’re fully aware of the laws in your state before making a decision.
Broken engagements and rings: What’s the etiquette?
Legal issues aside, there are also etiquette factors to consider if you or someone you love is weighing the pros and cons of returning an engagement ring.
“Broken engagements are a horrible situation, there are lots of feelings involved,” says Nick Leighton, an etiquette expert and host of the weekly podcast Were You Raised By Wolves?. “But the etiquette answer, pretty much universally, is just give it back.”
But what about broken engagements where there are clear cases of wrong-doing, such as infidelity or fraud? Still no dice, experts say. “A relationship, among other things, is based on love, honesty, commitment, love, and trust, [and] the ring is a symbol of endless love,” notes Lisa Grotts, an etiquette expert and author of Golden Rules Gal. “If infidelity is involved before the wedding vows, leave the ring drama out of it.”
This is especially true if you or someone you know was given a family heirloom, as the ring is more than just a pretty trinket and has a rich history behind all that dazzle. “Family heirlooms don’t grow on trees,” Grotts says. “They’re not given lightly and pose a whole different meaning to a traditional engagement ring.”
According to Grotts and Leighton, there’s a definite etiquette surrounding heirloom engagement rings, and it’s simple: If the ring came from your family, you get to keep it. If it came from someone else’s, you give it back, end of story.
“There’s not a world in which it’s okay to keep an heirloom,” Leighton adds. It doesn’t matter who’s at fault for ending the engagement or if you live in a conditional-gift state, either. Because the ring has potentially been in someone’s family for generations, it has deep sentimental value, and holding onto it—regardless of whatever personal feelings you might have post-breakup—isn’t just poor etiquette. Experts say it’s wrong.
So, should you keep the ring?
Deciding what to do with an engagement ring once a wedding has been called off can bring up a lot of difficult emotions for both the gifter and the recipient. It’s an awkward, potentially painful experience that no one wants to go through, and if you need to take some time to prioritize self-care before making a decision, the experts we chatted with say that’s OK.
But ultimately, you do have to make a choice. “Despite what might be legal or conditional, there's also right and wrong,” Grotts says. And if you are leaning toward keeping the ring even if you didn’t get married, Leighton recommends taking a hard look at the reasons why and being honest with yourself.
If your decision to keep the rock is motivated by spite, a desire to get even or take revenge, or just a need for cold hard cash, you may want to hit pause and take a step back. According to Leighton, those feelings aren’t compatible with elegant living and the good etiquette we should all aspire to, especially after a breakup. “It’s just classy to give it back,” he adds.
In my own situation, the choice was quickly clear. After taking some time to cry it out and process my own feelings, I ultimately returned my engagement ring. It had nothing to do with legal precedents or whose fault it was that the relationship ended—it just felt like the right thing to do.
My now ex-fiancé appreciated the gesture. When I told him I was writing this article, he approved and revealed that he later chose to sell the ring himself, well within his rights as he’d been the one to buy it in the first place.
While it wasn’t exactly our idea of the perfect ending, returning the engagement ring helped pave the way for our relationship to grow into a solid friendship, and one that I still cherish to this day. Happily ever after takes all forms.