Engagement and marriage are supposed to be two of the happiest times in a couple’s life. Ordinarily, as part of the engagement, an absurdly expensive diamond ring is provided by one fiancé to the other. Usually, marriage ultimately follows engagement. But what happens to the ring if the engagement is cancelled?
In Pavlicic v. Vogtsberger, 390 Pa. 502, 136 A.2d 127 (1957), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court first held that an engagement ring is a conditional gift and, therefore, the marriage must actually occur in order for the receiving fiancé to gain title to the ring. The Court explained:
A gift given by a man to a woman on condition that she embark on the sea of matrimony with him is no different from a gift based on the condition that the donee sail on any other sea. If, after receiving the provisional gift, the donee refuses to leave the harbor,-if the anchor of contractual performance sticks in the sands of irresolution and procrastination-the gift must be restored to the donor.
Thereafter, in Lindh v. Surman, 560 Pa. 1, 742 A.2d 643 (1999), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided that a “no fault” approach applies regarding the return of engagement rings. The Court held that it does not matter who broke off the engagement or why it was broken off; if the engagement is cancelled, the receiving party must, if asked, either return the ring or pay the value of the ring. The Court explained the reason for applying a no-fault construct:
A ring-return rule based on fault principles will inevitably invite acrimony and encourage parties to portray their ex-fiancées in the worst possible light, hoping to drag out the most favorable arguments to justify, or to attack, the termination of an engagement. Furthermore, it is unlikely that trial courts would be presented with situations where fault was clear and easily ascertained and, as noted earlier, determining what constitutes fault would result in a rule that would defy universal application.
The take-away is that if an engagement ring is given, but the engagement is broken off and the marriage does not occur, the receiving party must, if requested, either return the ring or pay the fair value of the ring, and must do so regardless of the reason why the engagement was cancelled. Happy Valentine’s Day!