Diamonds may be a girl’s best friend, but what happens to the friendship between a girl and her diamond ring when the engagement is called off?

While an engagement ring is often a relatively low value asset, it can often be one of the most expensive parts of a planned wedding.  J.R.R Tolkien understood just how ‘precious’ a piece of jewellery can be and just how contentious the issue of who keeps the ring can be.  Disputes about the ring can arise when one person disposes of the engagement ring – symbolically throwing it into fires of Mount Doom melting it down or selling it, and the other person then seeks its return or monetary compensation equal to its value.  Disputes about the ring will also arise where one person refuses to return it after an engagement is called off.

In the 2007 case of Papathanasopoulos v Vacopoulos, the happy couple exchanged rings at their engagement party.  Unfortunately, their relationship was not meant to be and ten days later the bride-to-be called off the wedding.

The bride-to-be said that she tried to give the ring back, but was told by the groom-to-be to keep it.  The bride-to-be then placed the ring in a box with other mementos of the failed relationship.  However the box and its contents (including the engagement ring) later made their way into the rubbish after the bride-to-be asked her father to get rid of them.

After learning of the disposal of the ring, the groom-to-be made a claim in the Local Court for the return of the engagement ring or compensation for its value, assessed at $15,250.

Magistrate George in the Local Court initially found in favour of the groom-to-be and ordered payment of compensation.  The bride-to-be appealed the decision, claiming that the ring was a gift, and that she was entitled to deal with it as she pleased.

The Supreme Court of NSW found that the bride-to-be was the holder of a “conditional gift”: the engagement ring would only become her property after their marriage took place.  The Supreme Court found that, legally, a woman who receives a ring in contemplation of marriage, and who later refuses to marry, must return the ring unless there is some legal justification for her decision.  Examples given were acts of violence towards her, or evidence that her fiancé was sexually involved with another woman.

The Supreme Court found that in the circumstances of the case, there was no such justification. By changing her mind about the marriage, the bride-to-be was rejecting the gift, and “upon rejecting the gift she became a bailee of that item so long as she had it in her control,” responsible for ensuring that the ring was properly looked after until the time when the groom-to-be asked for it back.

The claim that the gift became absolute when the groom-to-be told the bride-to-be that she could keep it was also rejected by the Supreme Court, as merely an attempt by the groom-to-be to preserve the relationship; it was not considered evidence that he was giving her the ring to do with as she pleased.

The appeal was dismissed, and the bride-to-be was again ordered to pay compensation, as well as the groom-to-be’s legal costs.

The principles in relation to who keeps the engagement ring may therefore be summarised from Papathanasopoulos v Vacopoulos as follows:

  • If a woman receives a ring in contemplation of marriage and refuses to fulfil the conditions of the gift, she must return it;
  • If a man has, without a recognised legal justification, refused to carry out his promise of marriage, he can’t demand its return;
  • If the engagement is called off by mutual consent, then in the absence of any agreement to the contrary, the engagement ring and like gifts must be returned by each party to the other.

However, it has been noted by other Courts within Australia that the Family Law Act 1975 abolished all notions of fault, and the cause of action of breach of promise to marry had also earlier been abolished.   The correctness of Papathanasopoulos v Vacopoulos, in relying on an old English decision in 1926 (prior to the abolition of the cause of action for breach of promise of marriage), has been doubted by other Courts.

In a 2017 Local Court of NSW case, Toh v Su, Magistrate Brender noted the law in Australia about the status of an engagement ring given to a proposed bride when a marriage has not proceeded is not clear.

Magistrate Brender did not follow Papathanaspoulos v Vacopoulos and instead found the gift of an engagement ring should be seen as unconditional, because if questions of fault are now irrelevant, “why would the law be any further concerned about who “broke off” the engagement? That was a question closely related to the concept of fault and breach of promise.  It would give rise to undesirable analysis of how and why a planned marriage is called off.”  Magistrate Brender philosophically noted “It is also not consonant with modern ideas.  A gift of an engagement ring should be now seen, like other gifts, as given absolutely … Many gifts are given in happy times and with optimism. Sometimes that optimism is borne out, sometimes it isn’t.”

Magistrate Brender also decided that if the 1926 English case does still apply in New South Wales, then on the analysis in Papathanaspoulos v Vacopoulos, the bride-to-be was still entitled to keep the ring because she did not refuse to fulfil the condition of the gift, as it was the groom-to-be who had refused to marry her.

Magistrate Brender did not order the return of the $15,500 engagement ring.

If you’re unsure about the ownership of an engagement ring or would like further information, please contact our Family Law team.

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