The history of engagement rings is interesting. In ancient times they may have been nothing more than a mark of ownership. In Ancient Rome women wore rings of ivory, flint, bone, copper and iron. It wasn’t until 1947 when De Beers, the British company that mined diamonds in South Africa launched an advertising campaign with the well-known slogan “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” that the engagement ring we think of as a sign of love, be it Tiffany, Cartier, or handcrafted in Hatton Garden, skyrocketed in popularity.  

Whilst popping the question and becoming engaged is an exciting time sometimes it does not always lead to living happily ever after whether before or after marriage. In such circumstances what happens to the ring?

The law which deals with engagement rings is contained in the Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1970. It states:

“The gift of an engagement ring shall be presumed to be an absolute gift; this presumption may be rebutted by proving that the ring was given on the condition, express or implied, that it should be returned if the marriage did not take place for any reason.”

Who keeps the engagement ring if the wedding is called off?

In broad terms as the engagement ring is given as an absolute gift it belongs to the recipient. It does not matter who calls the wedding off. The recipient is under no obligation to return the ring.

If, however, there was a condition (expressed or implied) that the ring would be returned if the engagement was broken off, the recipient would have to give the ring back. An example of this is evidence of a family heirloom that would be returned.

What about in the event of a divorce?

In the event of a divorce, the situation is the same unless it can be demonstrated that it was expressly intended to be returned to the giver. A woman’s jewellery is hers to keep regardless of whether it was bought or gifted to her. However, this has not always been the case with history dictating wives returning all jewellery, in the event of their marriage ending and never truly owning it.

Will the ring’s value be ignored?

In divorce proceedings, the court will look at the value of all the assets to be divided between the couple in order to achieve a fair division. The greater the value of the jewellery as compared to the total overall value of the other assets, the more likely it is to be taken into account.

Parties to the divorce will have to give financial disclosure by completing a financial statement, called a Form E. They will list any personal belongings worth more than £500. The current value is usually interpreted as the reasonable resale value of the item as opposed to an insurance valuation.

If the court has reason to believe that missing jewellery has the potential to be re-discovered, incentives may be made to help locate the items otherwise the other party may be financially compensated with a greater share of the assets.

How to avoid future disputes

As a nation we are still fairly romantic and honourable but like many areas of English law whilst the ownership of engagement rings seems simple at first glance there are some nuances that are important to understand. In order to avoid future disputes it may be worthwhile considering a pre-nuptial or pre-civil partnership agreement, which specifically deals with the ownership of family heirlooms or sentimental items in the event of the relationship breaking down.