Traditionally, we tend to think of an engagement as officially starting once the engagement ring is placed on the future bride's finger. Once that ring is given and accepted, it is seen as a symbol of the two individuals' promise to marry one another. What happens, however, if the wedding is called off? Who gets to keep it?
The answers to these questions were determined in Lindh v. Surman, a case that was decided by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania in 1999. Here's how it works in the state of Pennsylvania, as established under the court ruling—the engagement ring is considered to be a "conditional gift," meaning that is given based on the condition that the recipient marries the person who is giving the ring. For this reason, true ownership of the ring does not transfer over to the recipient until the wedding actually occurs. If the wedding is called off, the recipient must return the ring to the former fiancée who provided it, who is referred to as the "donor."
Pennsylvania applies a strict "no-fault" approach, meaning that it does not matter who called off the engagement or why—all that matters is that the marriage never took place. The only time an engagement ring recipient would not be required to return the ring would be if both of the fiancées had entered into a prenuptial agreement that called for some other type of action.
This answers the question of a pre-wedding breakup, but who gets to keep the ring if there is a divorce after the wedding? Considering Lindh V. Surman, we can see that following through with the marriage gives the recipient official ownership of the ring, which means that he or she should generally be able to keep it if the spouses ever get divorced (as long as there are no conflicting prenuptial agreements in place).
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