Who owns an engagement ring can prove contentious when a relationship breaks down. And the strict legal position may conflict with accepted etiquette.
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Traditionally, an engagement ring is a grand romantic gesture, often with a commensurate price tag. But according to a survey by jewellers William May, the average cost of an engagement ring in the UK is £1,471 – less than the monthly average salary. Indeed, around one in five costs £500 or less. And who can forget Poundland’s now legendary £1 engagement ring?
Research suggests that engaged couples spend around 19% less on a ring than a decade ago. In addition to the cost-of-living crisis, the financial priority for most younger couples is taking that first step on the property ladder. And with the average first-time buyer deposit in the UK now standing at an eyewatering £61,000, it’s easy to see why many are scaling back on the finger bling.
But whatever its cost, who owns an engagement ring if things don’t work out?
Who owns an engagement ring?
Disagreements over the ring can swiftly exacerbate whether it’s a broken engagement or subsequent divorce. For various reasons, both parties may feel that, legally or morally, they have the right to the ring. Perhaps they paid for it, or it’s a family heirloom, or they blame their partner for causing the relationship to break down.
Etiquette suggests that if the ring’s recipient gets cold feet, they should return it. Conversely, if the person who proposed calls it off, they should allow the recipient to keep the ring. But etiquette often conflicts with the strict legal position.
In English law, there’s a presumption that giving an engagement ring is a gift, so the recipient should keep it. However, that presumption is rebuttable if there’s proof that giving the ring was a condition in expectation of marriage. So, if the couple don’t subsequently marry, the recipient should return the ring.
Pre or post-nuptial agreements
Many more couples are now making pre or post-nuptial agreements. Often, these agreements provide for what should happen to the engagement ring, particularly if it’s valuable or a family heirloom.
Although pre and post-nuptial agreements remain unbinding in English Law, courts increasingly consider them during divorce financial proceedings.
What happens to an engagement ring of significant financial or sentimental value can be even more complicated. And sometimes, the ring is an amalgam of the two, perhaps a new stone set in an heirloom ring or vice versa.
Disputes over an engagement ring can become particularly acrimonious if purchased on finance or a credit card. If the engagement breaks off shortly afterwards, one party can remain liable for paying off the debt for a long time.
Ultimately, the court may need to intervene if the couple cannot agree over the ring. But in most cases, the cost of litigating that issue in isolation will likely prove wholly disproportionate to its value. However, for a divorcing couple, questions over the ring are likely to resolve in the overall context of the financial settlement proceedings.