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Engagement's off -- who gets the ring?

  • Story Highlights
  • Who gets the ring if engagement called off is not clear
  • Laws on property, contracts differ by states
  • Some say family heirloom rings should go back to families
  • Engagement rings lose value in resale
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By Liane Yvkoff
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(LifeWire) -- Celeste was engaged for 14 months -- two months longer than the jewelry store's return policy -- when she and her ex-fiance Chris agreed to end their engagement. She tried to return the ring to Chris, but he refused, saying it was a gift. Unable to return the ring to the jeweler, she set out to sell it.

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An engagement ring is a symbol of love until the wedding is called off.

"I'm not attached to the ring anymore because I'm no longer attached to the idea of marrying Chris," says Celeste, who didn't want her or her former fiance's last names used. "And maybe it will have more meaning to someone else or benefit them more than me."

Not all couples come to such a harmonious decision about who gets to keep the ring and what to do with it. In fact, tussling over engagement rings is common enough that most states have laws governing ownership. Custom and etiquette may also win out, depending on the couple.

Law trumps etiquette

Engagement rings fall under property, contract or family law, and how they are treated varies by state.

In California, it depends on who broke the engagement. For example, if the person who received the ring is the one who is reneging on the engagement, then that person must relinquish the jewelry. In New York, North Carolina, Minnesota, Tennessee and other states, appellate courts say engagement rings are conditional gifts that must be returned to the gift giver if the condition -- namely, the marriage -- does not take place, regardless of who broke off the engagement. Kansas and Montana say a gift, once given, cannot be taken back.

Oklahoma, where Celeste lives, has no cases on file governing engagement rings, so guidance would have to be drawn from nearby states, says Katherine Frye, family law specialist at Atkins & Markoff in Oklahoma City. Texas, she says, takes circumstances into account.

Who gets the ring also depends on when it is given. Most courts have found that giving an engagement ring on a birthday or a holiday, such as Christmas or Valentine's Day, makes the ring a simple gift.

But many people go with what feels right. Conventional wisdom has it that a woman should return the ring if she cancels the wedding, but keep it if her fiancé makes the break. Etiquette maven Emily Post says a ring always should be returned when the engagement is broken.

"There's a really big difference between culture and the law," says Joanna Grossman, a professor at Hofstra University School of Law. "What people do is largely dictated by cultural traditions, and many aren't aware of what the law requires."

Carrie Coolidge, a writer for "Forbes" magazine, thinks family heirlooms should be returned even if law doesn't dictate it. After ending her engagement weeks before the wedding in 1991, she handed back the engagement ring, which had belonged to her ex-fiance's grandmother.

"I didn't feel like I owned it. It was given to me in honor of our wedding," she says. "No one should be selling someone else's family ring."

A tough sell

Neither Celeste nor her ex-fiance Chris had reservations about selling their ring, which wasn't a family heirloom.

But she found that selling the ring meant taking a big loss financially. Wholesalers offered little more than 10 percent of the original purchase price, and craigslist produced a lot of spam but no serious buyers. EBay enabled her to set a minimum bid and, at the very least, net the same amount as wholesalers were willing to pay, maybe more.

With the proceeds from her eBay auction, Celeste bought a Frigidaire fast-drying clothes dryer -- not as pretty, perhaps, but a bit more useful. As for the ex? "His only strong feeling was shock over how little I'm getting for the ring."

Not everyone has the patience for an auction. Ben Shemano, a diamond broker for San Francisco Provident Loan Association, one of that city's oldest pawnshops, conducts a steady trade in engagement rings.

He recalls one purchase where he had to issue two checks, 60 percent to the woman and 40 percent to the man, "although I don't know how they came up with that calculation," he says. "They used the money to place deposits on new apartments."

Shemano has a few tips for those trying to sell an engagement ring:

• Find out what similar diamonds are selling for. Learn about the four Cs (color, clarity, cut and carat) -- the factors that affect a diamond's price -- from the Gemological Institute of America. Then look on sites like BlueNile.com and dirtcheapdiamonds.com for an idea of your ceiling.

• Consult the Rapaport Diamond Price List for the high wholesale price that diamond brokers pay. But that's not a fixed value. "Consider it an expectation," says Shemano.

• Appraisals are for insurance purposes -- a diamond is worth only what the market will bear.

• You will lose more money on the setting than the diamond, says Shemano, especially if it's a custom design. Elaborate settings may fetch a better price at auction than with a wholesaler, whose primary interest is the diamond. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

LifeWire provides original and syndicated lifestyle content to Web publishers. Liane Yvkoff is a freelance writer living in San Francisco.

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