News & Politics

Ending an Engagement, Calling Off a Wedding

When You Cancel a Wedding, Who Keeps the Ring?

THE CLOSER I GOT TO MY wedding day, the worse I felt. I dropped ten pounds and was suffering migraines. When my fiancé admitted he also had doubts, we called it off.

I packed a bag, put my engagement ring on the bed, and walked out. My ex-fiancé wrapped up the engagement watch I had bought for him and sent it back to me.

In researching my book on breaking engagements, There Goes the Bride (Jossey-Bass), I learned that many people don't agree with me about giving back the ring. Then again, many do.

Advice columnists also have varying opinions. Dear Abby believes the ring should be returned to the giver, no matter what. Her late sister, Ann Landers, held to the fault-based rule: He or she who ended it loses the jewelry.

Miss Manners, dubbing the engagement ring a "symbol," declared that it should be returned, though she coyly admitted that it was no less a symbol if the fiancée "ran over it with her van, melted it down, or threw it off a mountain."

Advice maven Prudie, of the Web site, told an inquiring reader that "you might feel more like a lady if you sent it back." Washington Post columnist Carolyn Hax is 100 percent in favor of giving it back.

Originally, courts favored the woman–because it must have been the man who called things off. A woman with a broken engagement was considered "used goods."

Then in the 1930s through the '50s, the courts decided that women were taking advantage of the situation. Where once they were the party to be protected, women were now "gold diggers" setting traps for their "hapless swains."

Besides, the courts argued, a woman who would go public couldn't be that pained. This calls to mind the old Puritan method of determining whether a woman is a witch: Only witches float. If you're thrown into the water, you're in trouble either way.

Rebecca Tushnet, a professor of law at New York University and an expert in engagement-ring law, says most men don't sue for the return of the ring: "That being said, a woman who is sued for return of the ring is unlikely to win."

Between the 1950s and the recent past, court rulings seesawed, producing contrasting opinions: The woman got to keep the ring no matter what (unconditional gift), she always had to give it back (strict no-fault), or who got it depended on who did what to whom (modified fault).

These days, most courts rule that an engagement ring is a gift conditional upon marriage and require that the woman give it back even if the man called off the wedding.

So there's only one way to be assured of keeping the ring: Marry the guy. After marriage, courts consider an engagement ring the woman's property.