If you break off the engagement, that ring has to go back.
Not all engagements result in marriage. Often the as-yet-unmarried goes their separate ways. If this happens, those engagement rings need to be exchanged, as well as other joint property, or else there could be major legal implications. And as strange as this may seem, none of this applies to wedding rings because Colorado is a no-fault state when it comes to property.
First, if a couple is already married, and the marriage ends in dissolution, the spouses have each “earned” the right to their rings. Moreover, since engagement rings and wedding bands are gifts of tangible personal property, they are not marital property subject to division. C.R.S. 14-10-113(2)(a).
But how about engagement rings if the engagement ends? Colorado’s law of gifts conditioned upon marriage suggests that if the engagement is ended by the person with the ring, the ring must be returned, and if ended by the other party, the ring can be kept. In other words, despite Colorado being a no-fault state, when it comes to engagement rings, the law looks at who ended it.
There are very few cases in Colorado dealing with gifts conditioned upon marriage, and no reported Colorado decision actually involving engagement rings. But there is a body of law dealing with gifts in contemplation of marriage.
The seminal Colorado case is In re Marriage of Heinzman, 596 P.2d 61 (Colo. 1979). There, the man purchased a residence, and three months later, when the couple got engaged, he conveyed the property to the couple as joint tenants. Shortly thereafter, the woman moved away, and the man subsequently married another woman.
The trial court found that the residence “was a gift conditioned upon the subsequent ceremonial marriage,” and that by moving away, the woman had abandoned the engagement. Accordingly, she was ordered to convey her interest in the residence back to the man.
The Colorado Supreme Court upheld that ruling, analyzing the issue nationwide and adopting what it found to be the majority rule:
“The majority rule appears to be that B must transfer back to A a gift received and held under the following circumstances: A and B are engaged to be married to each other. In contemplation of the formal commencement of that life of bliss A makes a gift to B. Later, through no fault of A, B breaks the engagement. The majority of courts reason that such a gift was conditioned upon a subsequent ceremonial marriage.”
In the case I have, it’s not real estate, but an engagement ring. My client intended to marry his now-former fiancé. However, one day they had a fight, she called the police on him, he was charged with a crime of domestic violence, and was slapped with a criminal protection order, thereby effectively ending their relationship. I kept him from being convicted of this crime, and I was able to show a judge they were not married by common law. So, now it’s time to get back his engagement ring.
This fact pattern is important because whether she has to give back the ring will depend on whether the judge finds she was the one who broke off the engagement. When it comes to divorce, Colorado is strictly a no-fault state. However, that is not the case with breaking an engagement. Who keeps the engagement ring depends upon whose "fault" it was the engagement ended. If the engagement ended through no fault of the person who gave the ring, that person gets the ring back. Examples of this may be if the other person simply fell out of love, or met someone else.
But the person with the ring can keep it under the following circumstances:
The other person broke off the engagement, rendering it impossible for the person with the ring to perform the condition of getting married.
The person with the ring broke the engagement, but it was really the other person’s fault.
As Colorado is a no-fault state when it comes to dissolution of marriage, so we do not have a current body of law which provides guidance as to what ‘fault’ means. Back when Colorado required fault to obtain a dissolution of marriage, grounds included adultery, abandonment, habitual drunkenness and mental cruelty. Presumably if those grounds were sufficient to end a marriage, a person who is the victim of such conduct now could keep the ring.
There is no decision on whether the flip side is also true - if the man breaks the engagement because the woman committed a crime against him, is she therefore the one at fault, so must return the ring? Common sense would say yes, but there is no reported Colorado decision on this point.
This case is yet to be decided, but it’s best just to give the ring and other items back to avoid litigation.