Americans spent an average of $6,351 on engagement rings in 2017. Yet, approximately 250,000 U.S. couples call off their wedding every year. When fiancés part ways before the knot is tied, who keeps the ring?

Most people believe the “victim” of the breakup should keep the engagement ring. While this is a popular opinion, it is not a legal obligation. Wedding etiquette is very different from the laws governing gift-giving, which vary by state.

If you recently broke off an engagement in New Jersey, here’s what you need to know.

An Engagement Ring is a ‘Conditional Gift’ in New Jersey

In New Jersey, the engagement ring is considered a “conditional gift,” which means it is exchanged by two parties with a mutual expectation that a future event or action will take place. In this case, the ring is given in exchange for a promise of marriage.

When an engagement is called off, the promise of marriage is broken, and the ring must be returned to the giver. The value of the ring does not matter. The State of New Jersey takes a “no-fault” approach to broken engagements, which means the circumstances surrounding the breakup do not matter either.

If the wedding successfully takes place, legal ownership changes and the ring belongs solely to the recipient of the gift. In the event of a divorce, an engagement ring is not typically considered a marital asset unless it was altered or upgraded in any significant way during the marriage.

Holiday Engagements Can Make Things Complicated

When an engagement ring is given around a holiday, anniversary, or birthday, things can get complicated. There needs to be an explicit proposal and acceptance, otherwise it can be argued the gift was a holiday present with no marriage condition.

New Jersey Case Law Involving Engagement Rings

In the 1987 case, Aronow v Silver, both parties called off the engagement mere days before the wedding. The judge determined (based on even older case law) the engagement ring was a conditional gift and should be held to the rules governing all conditional gifts in the state.

By this standard, the only evidence needed in New Jersey engagement ring disputes is proof the ring was given as a marriage proposal, and evidence the wedding never took place.

A later 1990 case, Winer v Winer, ruled that a divorcing couple’s wedding ceremony had satisfied the “contingency” of the engagement gift, and established the ring as the sole property of the recipient. For this reason, the ruling explicitly excluded the engagement ring from the equitable distribution process of the couple’s ongoing divorce.

How Can I Protect a Sentimental Engagement Ring?

Most couples don’t like to assume the worst when it comes to relationships. However, if you are nervous about gifting a sentimental family heirloom, there are ways to ensure the ring stays in the family even if the marriage takes place.

If you plan to propose using sentimental jewelry, both parties can -and should- negotiate who gets the ring in the event of a divorce in a prenuptial agreement under the guidance of legal counsel.

How Can I Get My Engagement Ring Back?

If you were engaged but not married, the giver can file a motion in court to recover the engagement ring. If the ex-fiancé refuses to produce the ring, she/he will have to provide the giver with the monetary equivalent of the ring.

If you are divorcing but want to recover a sentimental family heirloom, the giver may consider making other concessions during the divorce negotiation in exchange for the ring back. This type of arrangement must be settled out of court. If the case is litigated, the recipient gets to keep the ring with no monetary credit to the giver.

Before jumping to litigation, we always encourage parties to explore all options with an experienced family lawyer.

Hire a New Jersey Family Law Attorney

Whether you are entering an engagement or ending a marriage, the family lawyers at Arons & Solomon can help protect your interests.