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Put a Ring On It!

Article by Aleksandra Kocelko, Esq.

If you are glued to your TV on Monday nights watching The Bachelorette speak her mind and hand out red roses, you’re certainly not alone. ABC is wrapping up another season of The Bachelorette. As some devoted fans may know, the couple has to make it to the two-year mark before they are able to keep the ring. If the engaged duo break-up before two years elapses, they must return the ring to Neil Lane and the show. Neil Lane, the famed jewelry designer, donates the rings, which are used on both The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. The rings can be worth upwards of $100,000.00 depending on the chosen ring. It is rumored that Emily Maynard received the most expensive ring in the series history from then-fiancé Jef Holm, valued at $150,000.00. But, what happens in the real world when a couple breaks up after getting engaged? Who gets to keep the ring? Does it matter who ended the engagement? What happens if the parties later divorce?

Under Pennsylvania law, an engagement ring is a conditional gift. This means that the ring is given on the premise that the parties will be married sometime in the future. If the engagement is broken and the condition is not met, the ring must be returned.  The seminal case on this in Pennsylvania, Lindh v. Surman, decided in 1999, holds that the actual transfer of ownership of the ring is predicated on the parties’ marriage, the mere acceptance of the proposal does not transfer ownership. The Lindh case was not the first Pennsylvania case to hold that the ring must be returned where the donee (the person receiving the ring) broke the engagement, but rather it followed a line of similar cases dating back to the 1970’s.

In Lindh, the court was faced with another issue, whether the ring must be returned when the person breaking the engagement was the giver of the ring. Some states utilize a fault-based analysis where the return of the ring is dependent upon a determination of who broke the engagement. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ultimately decided against this approach and applied a no-fault rule. This means that regardless of who broke the engagement, the ring must be returned. The courts did not want to delve into the reasoning behind the breaking of an engagement or an analysis into whether such action was justified or not. The court wanted the law to be clear that when an engagement is broken the ring must be returned.  Once the parties do marry, the condition related to the gift of the ring has been satisfied. If the parties later initiate divorce proceedings, it is possible the court would treat the ring as a “gift between spouses” under the Pennsylvania equitable distribution laws. The gift would then be considered marital property to be divided in the event of a divorce. Alternatively, some argue that since the “gift” was made before the marriage, this would be considered the recipient’s pre-marital property and would not be subject to division, but for a potential increase in value. The appellate courts have yet to issue any decisions regarding the division of an engagement ring in a divorce proceeding.

If you were a contestant on The Bachelor or Bachelorette, instead of returning a 3+ carat engagement ring to Neil Lane, in Pennsylvania, the ring must be returned to the individual who gave it if the engagement is broken.