The history of the use of engagement rings in contemplation of marriage
can be traced as far back as the Roman Empire. A man proposed marriage
to a woman, and when she accepted his proposal, he “gifted”
her with a ring. The ring symbolized the parties’ intentions to
forsake all others from the date of the engagement forward to the date
of the actual wedding when their marital promises would become permanent.
The tradition continues to this day in most western countries.
But what happens to the ring if the marriage does not take place? Does
the man get his ring back? Does the woman get to keep the ring?
In contract law, if a gift is given, the gift belongs solely to the receiver,
and she can do whatever she wants with her property. But was the ring
a true gift, or was it considered a “conditional gift”? In
a “conditional gift” situation, the receiver gets the gift
with the understanding that some future event will happen. If the even
does not take place, the ring is returned to the donor, and the law considers
both parties to be returned to the same condition prior to their engagement.
Most courts consider the engagement ring as a conditional gift and the
property of the donor until the marriage takes place. If the marriage
does not take place, the ring is returned to the donor.
California takes a different approach via Civil Code Section 1590. The
statute states that the donor
may recover the ring if the marriage is called off by the receiver or by mutual
consent of both parties. It is not an automatic right for the donor to
get back, though. In fact, through California case law, in many instances
the receiver retained the ring if she (or he) could show no malfeasance
(wrongdoing) on her part or if the donor backed out of the engagement.