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Jim Hawkins: In a broken engagement: Who gets the ring?

Jim Hawkins • Sep 13, 2018 at 9:48 PM

“It’s so great to find that one special person you want to annoy for the rest of your life,” — Comedienne Rita Rudner.

Here is an interesting – and intense – legal question I have sometimes been asked, “Who gets to keep an engagement ring if a wedding is cancelled?”

Here’s some historical background. For 211 years, from 1796 until 2007, Tennessee had no higher court ruling about returning engagement rings.

As a result, judges in different counties made decisions on a case-by-case basis. Their rulings varied widely, including:  

•  ‘An engagement ring is a gift, and gifts don’t have to be returned.’

• ‘No, a ring goes back to whoever paid for it.’

• ‘No, whoever broke the engagement loses the ring.’

Q. Do Tennessee courts now have a guiding ruling about engagement rings? 

Yes, thanks to a 2007 Court of Appeals decision involving a couple named Jason and Catharyn. 

After several months in a romantic relationship, Jason proposed on Christmas Day 2005 and placed an engagement ring on Catharyn’s finger.

The engagement did not last. Jason asked Catharyn to return the ring. She refused. 

Jason sued to retrieve the ring. The trial judge said “engagement rings are gifts” and ruled that Catharyn could keep the ring. Jason appealed that ruling.

Q. So, who gets to keep an engagement ring if a wedding is cancelled? 

The Court of Appeals unanimously ruled that an engagement ring is a “conditional gift,” subject to ‘the condition of the contemplated marriage.’

Until the marriage happens, the ownership of the engagement ring never passes to the person who received the ring, and remains with the person who gave the ring.  

Catharyn was ordered to return Jason’s ring.

The bottom line is the engagement ring is a conditional gift and goes back to the person who gave it if there is no marriage. 

NOTE: Once a couple marries, then the condition of marriage is met, and the ring belongs to the person to whom it was given.

Jim Hawkins is a Gallatin general practice and public-interest law attorney. This column represents legal information, and is not intended to take the place of legal advice. All cases are different and need individual attention. Consult with a private attorney of your choice to review the facts and law specific to your situation. Call 615-452-9200 to suggest future column topics.


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