Pre-Marriage Engagement Ring Ownership Following Broken Engagement in South Carolina

This post is not meant or to be interpreted as legal advice.  Please consult with a licensed attorney as to your particular situation.  The findings of the South Carolina Court of Appeals in this case may have been overruled or distinguished, or be overruled or distinguished at any time.

On May 9, 2012, the South Carolina Court of Appeals had an opportunity to address ownership of an engagement ring in a romantic relationship that ended prior to marriage in the case of Campbell v. Robinson, Opinion Number 4969.  In other words, an engagement ring was presented, the other side said “yes,” but the engagement was broken off prior to marriage.

To begin, this was an action originally filed in a civil Circuit Court in South Carolina, and not in a South Carolina Family Court.  Marital property is a term of art in South Carolina law.  South Carolina Code Ann. Section 20-3-620 defines marital property; however, South Carolina Code Ann. Section 20-3-620(B) specifically sets forth that the Family Court, “does not have jurisdiction or authority to apportion nonmarital property.”  When dealing with an engagement ring prior to marriage between the gifting individuals (there was also no allegation of common law marriage in this matter found in the appellate opinion to cloudy the waters), one is almost certainly dealing with non-marital property.

What is an engagement ring?  According to the South Carolina Court of Appeals, an engagement ring by its very nature is a symbol of the donor’s (ring giver’s) continuing devotion to the donee (ring receiver).  Once an engagement is canceled, the ring no longer holds that significance. Thus, if a party presents evidence a ring was given in contemplation of marriage, the ring is an engagement ring.  As an engagement ring, the gift is impliedly conditioned upon the marriage taking place. Until the condition underlying the gift is fulfilled (i.e. – the parties get married), the attempted gift is unenforceable and must be returned to the donor upon the donor’s request.  This is not the “end of the analysis” though.

The person challenging the assertions that the ring is an engagement ring and therefore impliedly conditioned upon marriage has the burden of presenting evidence to overcome those assertions.  This burden may be satisfied by presenting evidence showing that the ring was not given in contemplation of marriage – it was not an engagement ring – or was not conditioned upon the marriage.  If the parties do not dispute that the ring was originally an engagement ring conditioned upon the marriage (example: both parties agree that the ring was at least originally an engagement ring), the burden may also be satisfied by presenting evidence establishing the ring subsequently became the challengor’s property (example: one may argue that after the breaking of the engagement, the ring receiver offered and tried to return the ring to the ring giver, but the ring giver wrote a letter setting forth that he or she desired the ring receiver to keep the ring for X or Y reason, such that the condition was removed and the gift became absolute).  As such, though the rulings set forth by the South Carolina Court of Appeals may appear clear to one or both sides upon first reading in a dispute, the particular facts of the situation matter.

The Court of Appeals was clear as to one matter though: the consideration of fault (as to who was at fault for the break in the engagement) has no place in determining ownership of an engagement ring.  Generally, gift law will dictate who has the legal right to the ring.  Tying in a bit of a South Carolina Family Court analysis, the South Carolina Court of Appeals further held that South Carolina’s use of fault in dividing property within the family court’s jurisdiction does not mandate the use of the fault approach for determining ownership of engagement rings when the marriage fails to occur.

On a final note, the South Carolina Court of Appeals held that though the heart balm actions for alienation of affection and criminal conversation have been abolished in South Carolina, promise to marry actions have not been expressly abolished.  The language of this portion of the opinion seems to invite the South Carolina Supreme Court and/or South Carolina legislature to take action, as the Court of Appeals indicates that its hands are essentially tied.

If you would like to speak with an attorney from our firm concerning your divorce matter or other family law matter, please call us at (843) 474-0614 or toll free at (800) 996-0683. We would be honored to speak with you.

Lee Law Firm, LLC is a South Carolina based law firm that advocates for and counsels clients throughout South Carolina and its Low Country, primarily in Beaufort and Jasper counties (including Hilton Head Island, Bluffton, Daufuskie Island, Ridgeland, Callawassie Island, Okatie, Hardeeville, and Beaufort).