When You Break an Engagement, Who Gets to Keep the Ring?

It’s hard to walk past a grocery store cash line without noticing all the celebrity gossip magazines that follow the various relationships break-ups and make-ups, divorces and broken engagements.

One of the common questions I am sometimes asked, is this:  Who gets to keep the ring, when an wedding engagement gets called off?

The answer in Ontario – perhaps surprisingly – is that is can go both ways.

A recent Ontario court case about an engagement ring called Newell v. Allen, 2012 ONSC 6681 (CanLII) considered the law.   It first looked at an earlier case called Iliopoulous v. Gettas (1981), 32 O.R. (2d) 636 (Co. Ct.) (which in turn adopts some long-established law from the U.K.).   After pointing out that an engagement ring is essentially a pledge to bind the “bargain” or contract to marry, and that the person who breaks the agreement must therefore bear the consequences, the court in Iliopoulous had stated:

If a woman who has received a ring refuses to fulfil the conditions of the gift she must return it. So, on the other hand, I think that if the man has, without a recognized legal justification, refused to carry out his promise of marriage, he cannot demand the return of the engagement ring. It matters not in law that the repudiation of the promise may turn out to the ultimate advantage of both parties.

In short:  courts will often look at who did the breaking-up.  On the other hand, the court in Newell v. Allen pointed out that a different approach was taken in another recent case, this time from the Ontario Small Claims Court, called Mastromatteo v. Dayball , [2011] O.J. No. 1600 (S.C.J.).  There, the judge found that there was no “clear common law rule on whether a ring must be returned”, and was therefore drawn to the proposition that “a gift is a gift”.

Although the judge in Newell v. Allen disagreed (and ordered the ring returned) these cases – all from the last two or three years – show that the law in Ontario is still not entirely clear on this point.

Have you broken off an engagement?  Unclear on who gets to keep the ring?  Give us a call.  Shulman Law Firm is a Toronto-area firm of experienced Family Lawyers who can provide practical advice and effective representation relating to the steps and processes involved in separating and getting divorced in Ontario.   Contact us to set up a free consultation.

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