21 Feb 2020
McAlister Family Law has been awarded Best Family Law Firm 2020 – England.Read more
Valentine’s Day is coming up: a day when every restaurant is fully booked with tables for two, the price of red roses skyrockets, and many couples end the day engaged to be married.
In recent years there have been calls – ignored, unsurprisingly – to ban engagement rings on the grounds of their being sexist. Matilde Suescun, writing for BBC 100 Women, wrote: "I believe engagement rings are anti-feminist, signifying that the woman with the ring belongs to another person."
There is something in this. Many anthropologists consider the giving of a ring it to be a tradition dating back to the ancient Egyptians, who believed circles were symbols of eternity. Wedded couples exchanged rings made out of braided reeds. These were worn on the left hand ring finger, which apparently had a vein, the Vena amoris, that ran directly to the heart, (romantic, but factually inaccurate).
In ancient Rome, the symbolism of betrothal rings was not so much about love as it was ownership. According to Pliny the Elder, the groom first gave the bride a gold ring to wear during the betrothal ceremony and at special events, then an iron ring to wear at home, signifying her binding legal agreement to his ownership of her.
So you might concede that Matilde Suescun has a point.
However not every engagement leads to a wedding, and even for those who do get married, there may be a divorce later on down the line. As divorce lawyers, its not unusual for the soon-to-be-ex-couple to argue about who keeps the engagement ring, particularly if the ring was expensive.
One half of the couple will put forward the argument that they bought it, so they own it. The other half of the couple, naturally, will advance the argument that the ring was given to them as a gift, so they can claim rightful ownership.
The Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1970 states:
“The gift of an engagement ring shall be presumed to be an absolute gift; this presumption may be rebutted by proving that the ring was given on the condition, express or implied, that it should be returned if the marriage did not take place for any reason.”
This means that unless there was an agreement to return the engagement ring if the wedding was cancelled, then the recipient is under no obligation to return the ring.
If the engagement ring is a family heirloom, perhaps passed down through the family for many generations – and the recipient was made aware of this at the time – then it is easier to succeed in an argument that the ring should be returned if the wedding is called off.
Many couples now enter into a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement and, if the parties feel really strongly about it, provision for the fate of the engagement ring can be included in the agreement as a specific term should the couple divorce. Otherwise, the same general rule applies: the engagement ring is an absolute gift (and therefore not returnable) unless there was a condition made about the ring being returned when it was given.
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