Diamonds may last forever but relationships don’t always, so who keeps the engagement ring?
It is commonly thought that the party who calls off the engagement gives up their right to the ring, but in fact, the courts of British Columbia have determined that fault for the termination of the engagement is not considered in the analysis (P.S. v. H.R., 2016 BCSC 2071 at para 71). The reason for this no-fault system is that relationships and their breakdowns are complicated and assigning fault to one party or the other is often impossible.
So who keeps the ring?
It is now well established law in British Columbia that if an engagement ends before the marriage occurs, the ring is simply returned to the party who purchased it. The Supreme Court of British Columbia says that the gift of an engagement ring is conditional on marriage and therefore returnable upon the failure of that condition (P.S. v. H.R., at paragraphs 69 – 79).
There are however a few exceptions to this general approach:
In P.S. v. H.R., the court found that although the general approach is to return the ring, this approach is subject to evidence of a contrary intention on the part of the purchaser. Meaning that the recipient may be able to keep the engagement ring if there is evidence that the donor intended the ring to be an absolute gift. In other words, a gift that is not conditional on the marriage actually occurring.
In P.S. v. H.R., it was successfully argued that an engagement ring was an absolute gift based on the following fact pattern:
 When Ms. R. attempted to return the engagement ring to Mr. S. he insisted that she keep it and, when she asked “So you’re giving this to me?”, he said “yes”. He suggested she try to take the ring back and use the money to help with her daughter’s wedding. These are words evincing a clear intention to make an absolute gift.
Another exception to the general approach is if the ring was purchased during the marriage or common law relationship. In these circumstances the ring is considered family property and its’ value is subject to equal division unless one party can show that the ring is excluded on the grounds that it was owned prior to the commencement of the spousal relationship or it was gifted from a third party (M.N. v C.G.F, 2019 BCSC 1406, at paragraphs 122–130). The reasoning behind this is that gifts between spouses are not considered excluded property and they fall back into the “communal pot when the marriage ends” (P.G. v. D.G., 2015 BCSC 1454 at paragraph 83). In M.N. v C.G.F at paragraph 124 the court applied this reasoning to engagement rings purchased during the spousal relationship.
If, however, the ring was purchased prior to marriage or the common law relationship and the marriage then goes through, the courts have held that the ring is a pre-marriage gift and is excluded from family property when the marriage breaks down (Nielsen v. Nielsen, 2006 BCSC 756, at para 44).
If you are considering an engagement, consult a family lawyer. It may save significant legal costs down the road in the event of a relationship breakdown.
This article is intended to be an overview of the law and is for informational purposes only. Readers are cautioned that this article does not constitute legal or professional advice and should not be relied on as such. Rather, readers should obtain specific legal advice in relation to the issues they are facing.