Rules of Engagement

E-mail Lis

There’s a reason February is one of the worst months of the year. Just think — it’s blisteringly cold outside, we’re still paying off holiday credit card bills (not to mention those few extra pounds that won’t come off) and, as the men in my life tell me, sports are on hiatus.

But it’s worse than that … it’s also national break-up season. Yes, there’s actually a time of year, when people are twice as likely to think about calling it quits. When making our New Year’s resolutions, finding a better relationship ranks right up there with losing weight and landing a new job. I knew February was bleak, but not this bleak.

How did we go from the season of cheers to the season to be tears? Well, I have a theory. Most people don’t want to be by themselves during the holidays, (no one likes to brave the family reunions without a significant other), so we tolerate much more than we would any other time of the year. As if national break-up season wasn’t enough to scare you (or your “loved” one), Valentine’s Day is also right around the corner.

Christmas trees and Menorahs are ripped down and replaced with a dizzying array of pink and red flowers — and don’t forget the hearts. These decorations serve as an alarm for some and if you want out of your relationship, now’s the time. Once Valentine’s Day arrives, you want to be with the one you love, not break your (once) loved one’s heart on the “most romantic day of the year.” The heartbreaking truth is that nearly four out of ten people at this time of year re-evaluate and end their relationships.

For those unlucky in love, coming face to face with a broken engagement presents an even bigger problem. Forget the chocolate and flowers — who keeps the ring?! I can count on two hands the number of people I know who’ve been through broken engagements. The pain is excruciating and for many, it’s akin to a death. But after the mourning period, the almost betrothed must inevitably deal with reality.

Couples entrenched in a battle over the ring, turn to state courts across the country for answers (or revenge) — but courts have yet to enact a uniform rule. What does that mean for you? Your home state law ultimately determines who keeps the ring. Generally, courts tend to treat an engagement ring as a gift.

Legally, three elements must be present for a court to consider an item a “gift.”

(1) The donor’s intent to give the ring as a gift
(2) the donor must actually deliver the property to the donee and
(3) the donee must actually accept the item. If the recipient can prove these three elements, the gift is complete and a court will not void the transaction--even if the giver experiences a change of heart. Apparently in a number of courtrooms, a diamond is not always forever.

The majority of courts, however, employ the “conditional gift theory.” That means, until some future event occurs, the gift isn’t considered final. Parents often employ this very same technique by giving their teenager the car keys, on the condition that the teen maintains a certain G.P.A.

In conditional gift theory, the same holds true for the engagement ring; a symbol of good-faith conditioned upon marriage. Those who feel entitled to keep the ring argue that the acceptance of the marriage proposal qualifies as the conditioned event. While this argument seems plausible, the law concerns itself more with justice than romance.

Most courts find that the engagement ring contains an implied condition of marriage — saying “yes” is simply not enough to keep the rock. But, if you really love your ring (and no longer your fiancé), think about moving to Montana. Montana’s Supreme Court declared in Albinger v. Harris that an engagement ring is an unconditional, completed gift. If you give a ring in this Western state, you’re less likely to recover the stone.

Now, what if breaking up the engagement wasn’t your idea? It seems only fair if you’re ready to walk down the aisle and your partner gets cold feet, you should keep the diamond, right? Courts give a resounding “maybe.” Here, again, courts do not agree on whether fault plays a role in who keeps the rings. Some courts opine that the law has no business entering the personal dynamics of a relationship. In Heiman v. Parrish, the Kansas Supreme Court decided that a ring-return rule based on fault principles inevitably invites acrimony and only encourages parties to portray their fiancés in the worst light. The majority of courts, however, hold that it’s unfair to mandate a return of the ring to the donor, especially if the break-up is the result of unfaithfulness or wrongdoing. Good news for the jilted, bad news for the jilter.

My advice for surviving national break-up season and Valentine’s Day? Remember February is the shortest month of the year. If you’re lucky to be with the one you love, and the day goes by with no flowers (or jewelry), it could always be because the red and pink signs everywhere had a blinding effect. And if you’re single — remember, February is the shortest month and it too shall pass.

I personally recommend grabbing a box of Godiva chocolates for yourself. And don’t worry, St. Patrick’s Day is just around the corner. Stores will soon replace red and pink hearts with green four-leaf clovers.


Albinger v. Harris, 2002 WL 1226858 (Mont. 2002)

Lindh v. Surman, 742 A.2d 643 (Pa. 1999)

Heiman v. Parrish, 942 P.2d 631, 633 (Kan. 1997)

• January is National Break-up month

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• E-mail Lis With Your Legal Questions!

Lis Wiehl joined FOX News Channel as a legal analyst in October 2001. She is currently a professor of law at the New York Law School. Wiehl received her undergraduate degree from Barnard College in 1983 and received her Master of Arts in Literature from the University of Queensland in 1985. In addition, she earned her Juris Doctor from Harvard Law School in 1987. Lis is also the author of The 51% Minority — How Women Still Are Not Equal and What You Can Do About It. To read the rest of Lis's bio, click here.