Can I have it back, please?!

February is right around the corner and as Valentine’s Day approaches, many feel stirred to make the ultimate romantic gesture and propose to their loved one. An engagement ring can be a great way to celebrate Valentine’s Day, and it frees the giver from having to think of another gift so soon after the holidays. These romantic symbols are most often a starting point to a long and happy marriage; but sometimes the stars are crossed and a frequently researched question at the Riverside County Law Library is what happens to gifts, and engagement rings in particular, when relationships end.

Since 1939, the law in California has been very clear in stating that an engagement ring is not simply a gift but a symbol of entering a contract, a promise to marry. The wording of this statute is gender neutral and has not been revised in 80 years:  

Where either party to a contemplated marriage in this State makes a gift of money or property to the other on the basis or assumption that the marriage will take place, in the event that the donee refuses to enter into the marriage as contemplated or that it is given up by mutual consent, the donor may recover such gift or such part of its value as may, under all of the circumstances of the case, be found by a court or jury to be just.

An engagement ring is recognized as being special and as such it is not as freely given or demanded back as an ordinary gift between romantic partners. In fact, the law specifies that the person who was willing to go ahead with the marriage in good faith is the one who keeps the ring. 

An often-cited case is Simonian v. Donoian, 96 Cal. App. 2d 259 (1950).  Mr. Simonian chose to present a ring during the Christmas season and his mother, who was present at the time, presented his new fiancé with a watch that had been a family heirloom. Through a complicated series of events, the marriage was called off and the Simonian family asked for the return of their jewelry. According to the court, the failure of the marriage to take place was determined to be the fault of the gentleman meaning the lady was entitled to keep the ring for her trouble. The antique watch may have been an ill-timed gift but was still seen as an outright gift that need not be returned no matter what the circumstances.

The matter is different when there is fraud at play. A lonely widower by the name of Mr. Stienback put his trust in a lady who promised to marry him and then secured not only a set of rings but several thousand dollars’ worth of merchandise, a car, and the deed to the man’s house within just a few weeks of meeting him. She kept delaying a wedding until Mr. Steinbeck finally ran out of money, wised up, and broke it off. Thankfully, in the case of Steinbeck v. Halsey, the court agreed that Ms. Halsey never had a genuine interest in marriage but was determined to get as much money as she could by promising it. The court ordered that Mr. Stienback have his material items returned even though his pride was probably gone for a lot longer.

Other states have also found the need to provide specific laws relating to the fate of engagement rings after a break-up with many not considering the reason for a broken engagement and automatically awarding the ring back to the giver.

The actual process of recovering the ring may be more difficult and it’s up to the individual to decide if the time and expense is warranted. Mariah Carey recently secured possession of her engagement ring after a failed romance and subsequent legal financial settlement but that particular ring’s value was a bit more than the norm.  

Detailed guides to help you determine how matrimonial rings and other possessions can be recovered or distributed under different circumstances are always available at the Riverside County Law Library where the librarians and assistants are happy to help you find the perfect information for your situation. 


By rcll

January 26, 2018

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