The One that Got Away: Who Keeps the Ring When the Engagement is Called Off?

A man on one knee proposing to a woman

Valentine’s Day is just around the corner and no doubt many BC residents will take advantage of the romantic mood to propose. Assuming the answer is “yes”, those newly engaged couples will be excitedly planning a future together. But what happens when things do not go as planned and the relationship ends before the wedding? Who gets to keep the engagement ring?

In British Columbia, outside of when the parties are already in a common law marriage, the answer is that generally the engagement ring must be returned to the person who purchased it (As Ruled in Hitchcox v Harper, [1996] B.C.J. No. 1861; Sperling v Grouwstra, 2004 BCSC 330; Zimmerman v Lazare, 2007 BCSC 626). Applying the principles of contract law, the BC courts consider that the engagement ring is a gift given conditional on the occurrence of marriage. If the marriage does not take place, the parties should be restored to the position they were in before the engagement. Additionally, the courts in BC do not consider fault in the termination of the engagement when deciding who gets the ring. Therefore, no matter who breaks off the engagement, and no matter the reason, outside of a common law relationship, the courts have said the ring should be returned to the purchaser.

There are, however, situations where the former fiancée will not be entitled to recover the engagement ring they purchased. That was the case in S(P) v R(H), 2016 BCSC 2071, where the plaintiff told his ex-fiancée to keep the ring when she tried to give it back after breaking off their short engagement. He later regretted his decision and when she refused to return it he sued her to recover the ring. The court determined that although the ring was an engagement ring, by insisting that his former fiancée keep the ring after she broke off the engagement, he showed an intention to make an absolute gift, rather than a gift that was conditional on marriage.

So, if you buy a ring and are hoping to get it back if the wedding does not occur, be mindful of what you say about the ring during the breakup.

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