When the Engagement is Called Off, Who Gets the Ring?

Boy meets girl. Boy and girl fall in love. Boy buys an expensive engagement ring and proposes, to which girl says yes. Before the wedding, boy and girl break up and boy wants ring back. Girl refuses to give it back. Who is entitled to it?

According to an article by Maryanne Garvey, this is exactly the dilemma for Wyatt Koch:

“Wyatt Koch — son of one of America’s most famous billionaires, Bill Koch — is suing his ex-fiancée to get the custom engagement ring he gifted her back.”

“It started when he got engaged to Ivie Gabrielle Slocumb, but she broke off the engagement in May, and now he’s filed a lawsuit in Florida circuit court, “demanding the return of the ring . . . on multiple occasions.” While he insists she “received the ring as a conditional gift,” and was only hers if she walked down the aisle, she will not return it. The ring itself is a 8.24-carat cushion-cut diamond with two tapered baguette diamonds.”

According to the article, Koch paid $180,000 for the ring, that he now says has appreciated to $250,000. However, it seems that the most important fact was that Ms. Slocumb was the one that broke off the engagement.

“One top family lawyer knows the laws when it comes to who keeps the jewels. It really depends on who actually initiated the break-up, says Peter Walzer, partner of Los Angeles based law firm Walzer Melcher.

Most of the time, if you believe a marriage will happen, and your partner (now ex) called it off, the ring is rightfully yours because they failed to fulfill a promise.”

Texas follows this same philosophy and calls it the fault-based conditional-gift rule. The case of Curtis v. Anderson, 106 S.W.3d 251 (Tex.App. – Austin, 2003) had basically the same fact pattern, except that the prospective husband (Curtis, also known as the “donor” of the ring) broke off the engagement because he felt prospective wife (Anderson, also known as the “donee”) had “sexual hang-ups” and a “volatile temper.” The Court held that, since the donor was at fault in the break-up, he was not entitled to the ring. Courts have also held that, when the donee is at fault, conditional gifts should be returned. This is known as the McClain rule, after the case of McClain v. Gilliam, 389 S.W.2d 131 (Tex.App. – Eastland 1965), which states:

“A gift to a person to whom the donor is engaged to be married, made in contemplation of marriage, although absolute in form, is conditional; and on breach of the marriage engagement by the donee the property may be recovered by the donor.”

Luckily for Ms. Slocumb, this case was not filed in Texas, as not all states follow this rule.  Maybe Florida will do something different. But, in Texas, if she indeed broke off the engagement, she would most likely be required to return the ring.