Q: What Happens to the Rings When the Relationship Doesn’t Last?
A: I once had a client who received a wedding ring from her fiancé when they got engaged. She later found out that he was a fraud. It turns out he had lied to her about many important, material facts regarding his background and who he really was. So, she called off the wedding. However, she wanted to keep the engagement ring he gave her because she felt betrayed and wronged by his lies. Other clients have been engaged and the wedding was called off by mutual agreement. Does the engagement ring have to be returned in either of these scenarios? What if the couple gets married, but later divorces? Who gets the engagement ring then? And what about those other rings, given during the marriage ceremony? Are they treated differently than the engagement ring? Who knew jewelry could cause so much commotion!
In both scenarios discussed above where the wedding was called off (one because of the misrepresentations and fraud and the other by mutual agreement) the answer is the same: the recipient of the engagement ring has to give it back. An engagement ring is a conditional gift given in anticipation and contemplation of a specific event. And that event is a marriage. If no marriage occurs then the engagement ring must be returned to the donor (the person who gave the ring). See Benassi v. Back & Neck Pain Clinic, Inc., 629 N.W.2d 475 (Minn. Ct. App. 2001). In Benassi, the Minnesota Court of Appeals took up this issue for the first time and declared that an engagement ring is a conditional gift that must be returned to the donor after the engagement is broken (i.e., if no marriage occurs) regardless of who is at fault for the end of the engagement. Id. at 484. In this case, the recipient of the engagement ring brought a sexual harassment claim against her former employer, who just so happened to also be her former fiancé, and in response her former fiancé asked for the engagement ring to be returned. Id. at 478-79. The recipient of the ring claimed the engagement was called off by the other party and alleged he had an affair. Id. at 478. No matter who was at fault for the engagement ending, the Court ordered the return of the engagement ring. Id. at 484.
But what about the other scenarios mentioned above where there is a marriage? In the case of a divorce, the answer is: it depends. Most engagement rings are given before the wedding and we know from the Benassi case that they are considered conditional gifts so, if a marriage does occur, the engagement ring is considered a gift that was acquired before the marriage and is therefore a nonmarital asset under Minnesota law. Minn. Stat. § 518.003, subd. 3b. Unless there is hardship (which is very unusual and outside of the scope of this article), a party’s nonmarital assets will be awarded to them in the divorce. Minn. Stat. § 518.58. If the engagement ring is actually given to the recipient after the marriage (like in the instance when the original engagement ring was lost and was replaced using marital assets after the parties were married), then the gift was from one spouse to the other during the marriage and these gifts are considered marital in nature. Minn. Stat. § 518.003, subd. 3b. In these instances, the recipient would likely be awarded the ring, but other assets of equivalent value would likely be awarded to the donor (the spouse who gifted the ring) so that an equitable division of marital assets could be accomplished pursuant to the law covering the division of marital assets.
And lastly, what about the other rings given during the marriage ceremony, the wedding bands or wedding rings? The law covering wedding rings results in a different answer than the law covering engagement rings. It is the same law, but the difference arises because of the timing of when the gift is made. Engagement rings and wedding rings are traditionally gifted at different times. While engagement rings are typically given some period of time before the actual marriage ceremony, the wedding rings are typically exchanged by the couple during the marriage ceremony and after they have actually exchanged wedding vows. Since these wedding rings are gifts between spouses, given at the time of marriage, they are considered marital in nature and subject to equitable division under Minnesota law.