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Family Law Blog

The wedding’s off! Who keeps the ring?

Posted by Karina Ralston on 27 Aug 2015

Beyonce sung about “putting a ring on it” but what happens to the engagement ring when the wedding is called off? The issue of who keeps the ring can be a contentious one with perceptions about who is the rightful owner guided by convention, tradition, morality or that the former bride-to-be automatically keeps it! However, perceptions between the parties don’t always marry (pun intended) and in these instances, the Court steps in.

Disputes about the ring usually arise when one person in a ‘cathartic release’ (as it has been described to me) disposes of the engagement ring – symbolically throwing it into the ocean (or another body of water), melting it down to create a new piece of jewellery or selling it. The other person then seeks its return or monetary compensation equal to its value.

The guiding principles as to who keeps the engagement ring were explained by the Local Court in the case of Papathanasopoulos v Vacopoulos (formerly engaged couple, Ms P and Mr V).

In 2005, the happy couple exchanged rings at their engagement party. Just ten days later, relations between them soured to the point that Ms P called the wedding off. Ms P said that she tried to give the ring back but was told to keep it so she placed it in a box with other mementos of the failed relationship. The box and its contents later made their way into the rubbish after Ms P asked her father to get rid of them.

After learning the fate of “his precious,” Mr V made a claim in the Local Court for the return of the engagement ring or compensation for its value, assessed at $15,250. Magistrate George in the Local Court found for Mr V, and ordered Ms P to pay up.

Ms P appealed the decision, claiming that the ring was a gift, and that she was entitled to deal with it as she pleased.

Justice Smart of the Supreme Court found that Ms P was the holder of a “conditional gift” - the engagement ring would only become her property after their marriage took place. He said that, legally, a woman who receives a ring in contemplation of marriage, and who later refuses to marry, must return the ring unless there is some legal justification for her decision - for example acts of violence towards her, or evidence that her fiancé was sexually involved with another woman.

Justice Smart found that there was no such justification. In fact, by changing her mind about the marriage, Ms P was rejecting the gift, and “upon rejecting the gift she became a bailee of that item so long as she had it in her control,” responsible for ensuring that the ring was properly looked after until the time when Mr V asked for it back.

Ms P’s claim that the gift became absolute when Mr V told her that she could keep it, was also rejected by Justice Smart. He said it was merely an attempt by Mr V to preserve the relationship - not evidence that he was giving her the ring to do with as she pleased.

The appeal was dismissed, and Ms P was again ordered to pay compensation, as well as Mr V’s legal costs.

In short:

  • If a woman receives a ring in contemplation of marriage and refuses to fulfil the conditions of the gift, she must return it 
  • If a man has, without a recognised legal justification, refused to carry out his promise of marriage, he can’t demand its return 
  • If the engagement is called off by mutual consent, then in the absence of any agreement to the contrary, the engagement ring and like gifts must be returned by each party to the other.

If you're unsure about the ownership of an engagement ring or would like further information, please contact our Family Law team:

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