The wedding has been called off. Or you’re in the middle of a divorce and the subject of the ring comes up—what happens to the engagement ring in these scenarios? Engagement rings often represent a significant financial and emotional investment for both parties in a committed relationship. When the relationship ends, it can also be one of the most fraught assets to distribute. Knowing the legal landscape can help you make the best decision for you.

Broken Engagements

It is hard to come up with a one-size-fits-all rule for what should happen to an engagement ring when a wedding is called off, since weddings may be canceled for a host of different reasons. What if the person who gave the ring called off the wedding? What if the recipient called it off—but they did so due to discovering infidelity? As with weddings, there may certainly be a sense of what etiquette dictates; but what the law allows may be entirely different.

Here in Illinois, the legal guidance in these situations is confusing and potentially unsettled. The argument has typically been that the engagement ring is a conditional gift, given as part of a contract that contemplates a wedding taking place. If the wedding does not occur, then, the gift could be taken back….sometimes.

To ask a court to compel someone to return your property, you would have to file an action for what is called replevin. A key aspect of this sort of case would be proving to the court that you are the rightful owner of the property. In the case of an engagement ring, Illinois courts have been clear that they are not interested in why the engagement did not result in a marriage, but they are interested in who called the wedding off. This is because if someone unilaterally calls off the engagement, they are unlikely to have the right to possess the ring in a replevin action.

Lawyers like to joke that the answer to most legal questions is “it depends” and replevin actions for the return of an engagement ring are a prime example of this. There are so many complicating factors that could impact the outcome, that whether you are in possession of an engagement ring or seeking the return of one, your best bet is to consult with an attorney who can advise you after being apprised of the details in your specific case.

A Change Ahead?

While a judge hearing a replevin case is not going to get bogged down in assigning blame for the breakdown of a relationship, these cases can still be onerous and old-fashioned. Onerous because parties can easily spend more than the value of an item of jewelry arguing over who called off the relationship; old-fashioned because they are based on antiquated ideas of what is at stake when two people agree to marry and then don’t.

We no longer cling to the notion that an unmarried woman is worth less than a married one, or that a woman needs a husband in order to be financially secure. And yet, Illinois only recently repealed the Breach of Promise to Marry Act, a type of “heart balm” statute allowing parties to sue for money damages when a wedding is called off. These sorts of laws provided the basis on which jilted parties could file suits, but as with replevin, the resulting legal cases were messy, costly, and a throwback to a bygone era. While we have yet to see signs that replevin actions are going the same way, it may just be a matter of time before the courts consider engagement rings as complete, unconditional gifts and stop mandating their return under any circumstance. Does the thought of buying a piece of jewelry that may cost upwards of $10,000 (about the average spend on an engagement ring in the metro Chicago area) and not getting it back if the wedding is called off make you sweat? Then, right after you decide to get married you should talk to an attorney about drafting a prenuptial agreement that spells out what happens in just such an instance.

Engagement Rings and Divorce

Once the couple is married, the condition attached to the gift has been fulfilled and the ring belongs to the recipient. The giver may be tempted to seek that the ring be returned through the divorce process, but because engagement rings are given before the marriage begins, they are not considered marital property, so a divorce court will not distribute it.

This may lead to some wrenching outcomes: imagine if the ring in question is a family heirloom or if the recipient of the ring dissipated all the family’s other assets. You would probably be pretty mad if a judge told you that Grandma’s precious diamond now belongs to the person who drained your bank account and left you for the pool boy, right? Again, a well-written prenuptial agreement is your friend. (Contact us if you need to get a prenuptial agreement!) It may feel awkward suggesting you get a prenup while you and your partner are basking in the glow of engagement bliss—but it may also save you tremendous heartache down the road.