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.