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Keeping the Ring – Does it Matter Who Broke Off the Engagement?

We wrote recently about whether you can sue someone for breaking a promise to live together (and the short answer is: You can’t). This touches upon a broader point:  When relationships fail early on, in the pre-commitment or pre-marriage stages, the legal outcomes can often be less clear than for relationships that fail after divorce or a period of living together common-law.

This comes up often in connection with broken engagements, and the specific question of who gets to keep the ring. As we mentioned in another article about broken engagements, there is some confusion in the law because the ring can be viewed in one of two ways:

  • as a conditional gift, contingent upon there being a marriage in the future; or
  • an unconditional gift, which does not have to be returned if the intended wedding falls through.

The law is not particularly clear and there have been decided court cases from across the country that go both ways. This was explored in an older case of McArthur v. Zaduk, 2001 CanLII 28143 (ON SC), the court where the court made the following observations about them:

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  • Historically, the courts used to look at who broke off the engagement:  if the person giving the ring broke it off, then he was not entitled to have it returned. But if the woman called it off, she had to return it.
  • However, in some cases, courts have found that the ring forms an “unconditional gift” which does not have to be returned, regardless of who broke off the engagement.
  • Whether or not the person giving the ring has the legal right to its return, if he does not ask for the ring back at the time the engagement is broken, then he can not ask for it back later (this is because delay in demanding that the ring be returned can suggest that the person giving it intended it to be an unconditional gift).

Based on these factors, it is obvious that one of the key questions will be what the each member of the couple intended. This is not always clear. Moreover, in shaky relationships, sometimes engagements get broken off, then re-instated, then broken off again. This can further muddy the question of whether the woman can keep the ring. Each case will depend on the facts.

Do you have questions about a broken engagement? Contact us for a consultation.

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