In Western culture, most often a marriage proposal is accompanied with an offer of an engagement ring. Engagement rings are symbols of the love, devotion, commitment and fidelity a couple shares.
Conventionally, the woman’s ring is presented as a “betrothal” gift by a man to his prospective spouse while he proposes marriage or directly after she accepts his marriage proposal. It represents a formal agreement to future marriage. Rings can be bought by the man, the woman, the couple together, or by each partner for the other.
Betrothal rings were used during Roman times, but weren’t generally revived in the Western world until the 13th century. The first well-documented use of a diamond ring to signify engagement was by the Archduke Maximilian ofAustriain imperial court of Vienna in 1477, upon his betrothal to Mary of Burgundy.
However, engagement rings didn’t become standard in the West until the end of the 19th century, and diamond rings didn’t become common until the 1930s. Now, 80% of North American women are offered a diamond ring to signify engagement.
In addition to being symbolic, engagement rings are expensive! A “rule of thumb”, apparently, is that a bridegroom should spend approximately 10% of his total annual salary on his fiancée’s engagement ring.
Not surprisingly, therefore, if an engagement is broken off and the couple do not end up marrying, often times a dispute arises as to who gets to keep this valuable ring.
A gift is a voluntary transfer of property from one individual to another, made gratuitously to the recipient. Three elements must be present; delivery, donative intent, and acceptance. It is generally free of any conditions, strings or “consideration”.
Clearly, an engagement ring is given in contemplation of marriage. In this respect, proceeding with the actual marriage can be viewed as a condition on which the ring is given. However, if a gift cannot be conditional, how can the bridegroom require its return, if the engagement is broken off?
This issue is not dealt with under any legislation, such as the Family Law Act, or the Divorce Act. Rather, it is a common law issue, one that has been dealt with by the courts on many occasions.
Cases have held that, in spite of the fact that a gift cannot be conditional, a donor can nevertheless legitimately require its return if the condition is not fulfilled, in that the engagement is broken off prior to the wedding; however, the issue is dependent upon who breaks off the engagement.
If the donor (the bridegroom) decides that he does not want to proceed with the wedding and cancels the engagement, the bride is entitled to keep the ring. If, on the other hand, the bride is the one who initiates it and breaks off the engagement, the ring must go back to her former fiancé.
Of note is that the reason for the wedding cancelation appears to have no relevance; if the bridegroom discovers that his wife-to-be has been unfaithful and angrily breaks off the engagement, he is not entitled to the return of the ring.
Another issue that arises with respect to engagement rings, is whether the ring is included as property to be equalized between the spouses if, after they marry, they end up separating.
An engagement ring is property and, as such, is to be included as property owned by the wife on the date of separation, for equalization purposes. However, if the engagement ring was given to her by her bridegroom prior to marriage, it is also pre-marital property, which is deductible from her net family property. Therefore and unless the engagement ring has increased in value from the date of marriage to the date of separation, there is no benefit to the husband by having the wife include the ring as property owned by her on the date of separation. Although she will include the value of the ring as property owned by her on the date of separation, she will then turn around and deduct its value as property owned by her on the date of marriage.