Who gets the diamond engagment ring when a relationship ends?

So who gets the diamond engagement ring when a relationship ends?

By M. J. Goodwin


In 2002, I completed the 40 hour course to become a certified Family Court Mediator.  I enjoy doing mediation work.  It allows me to interact with Family Court litigants in a different setting.  I am helping the litigants solve their own problems, rather than representing one side against the other.  This involves a good bit of “people knowledge” and common sense as well as legal knowledge.  Mediators can’t give either side legal advice, but are expected to know “the rules” and be able to state “the rules” in a context other than specific legal advice.   “The rules” are not always that simple.  In fact, they are usually quite complex and depend on a variety of factors.

The question that arose in yesterday’s mediation was which party gets the diamond ring now that the relationship is over.  This particular ring was valued at around $6000.  However, I have been involved in cases with rings that were valued as high as $50,000.  So rings can become a pretty big asset.  But as they are typically bought prior to the marriage, they are not marital assets.  Family law doesn’t even control their ownership.

One must look to gift law for the answer on this one.

The Court of Appeals took this issue on in 2012.  In Campbell v. Robinson, 398 S.C. 12, 726 S.E.2d 211 (Ct. App. 2012), the Court ruled that it is the intent of the gift that governs the ownership.   If the ring is a conditional gift, what I would term a true “engagement ring”, then the ring should be returned if the relationship breaks up.

The opinion finds:  “An engagement ring by its very nature is a symbol of the donor’s continuing devotion to the donee. Once an engagement is cancelled, the ring no longer holds that significance. See, e.g., Heiman v. Parrish, 262 Kan. 926, 942 P.2d 631, 634 (1997); McIntire v. Raukhorst, 65 Ohio App.3d 728, 585 N.E.2d 456, 457-58 (1989); Lindh v. Surman, 560 Pa. 1, 742 A.2d 643, 645 (1999); Brown v. Thomas, 127 Wis.2d 318, 379 N.W.2d 868, 872 (1985), abrogation on other grounds recognized by Koestler v. Pollard, 162 Wis.2d 797, 471 N.W.2d 7, 9 n. 4 (1991); 38A C.J.S. Gifts § 41 (2011). Thus, if a party presents evidence a ring was given in contemplation of marriage, the ring is an engagement ring. As an engagement ring, the gift is impliedly conditioned upon the marriage 20*20 taking place. Until the condition underlying the gift is fulfilled, the attempted gift is unenforceable and must be returned to the donor upon the donor’s request. Cf. Watkins v. Hodge, 232 S.C. 245, 249, 101 S.E.2d 657, 658 (1958) (“[T]he only reasonable inference is that there was not a gift…. In common parlance, to be legally binding a gift must have no strings attached, such as admittedly existed in this case.”); Lynch v. Lynch, 201 S.C. 130, 137, 146, 21 S.E.2d 569, 572, 576 (1942)

If the gift, however, is absolute, then it should not be returned.   What comes to mind when I think of this sort of gift is an “engagement” ring that is given at Christmas, for a birthday or even for Valentine’s Day.  It is a diamond, but is it an “engagement” ring?  Arguably not.

Campbell v. Robinson  further holds that:  “The person challenging the assertions that the ring is an engagement ring and therefore impliedly conditioned upon marriage has the burden of presenting evidence to overcome those assertions. This burden may be satisfied by presenting evidence showing that the ring was not given in contemplation of marriage — it was not an engagement ring — or was not conditioned upon the marriage. If the parties do not dispute that the ring was originally an engagement ring conditioned upon the marriage, the burden may also be satisfied by presenting evidence establishing the ring subsequently became the challenger’s property. See, e.g., Hawkins v. Smith, 37 Ga.App. 781, 141 S.E. 917, 917 (1928) (recognizing that a conditional gift of an engagement ring could become an absolute gift after the engagement was cancelled).”  So how one proves whether or not the ring is an engagement ring or simply a diamond ring given as a gift can also come into the equation.

I find it hard to conceive that most people spend enough on the diamond ring to justify the legal expense involved in fighting over it.  However, there are some rings out there that would justify the expense.  Perhaps the most reliable option to determine ownership of a very high value ring would be to address it in a prenuptial agreement.  However, many people find prenups offensive, as they contemplate the break up of the marriage that will occur in the very near future.   Another option is to gift the ring to a child of the marriage.  Yet another option would be to sell the ring and divide the proceeds.  The parties can do virtually anything with the ring if they agree on it.  However, if the Court has to make the decision, the options are far more limited.

As with many legal issues, there is no short answer as to who gets the ring.  The answer depends on a variety of factors and the nature of the evidence as to the factors.

With 22 years of Family Court experience, M. J. Goodwin is the founding attorney of Goodwin Attorney at Law, LLC, with offices in Anderson, South Carolina.  Goodwin practice trial law in Upstate South Carolina, with an emphasis on Family Court matters.






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