Financial Etiquette: When to Give Back An Engagement Ring

I find financial etiquette fascinating. It's like taking everything you know about manners and strapping a stick of dynamite to the back, because well, money is involved. And we all know there are few things as awkward as talking about money. Since it's an area of interest for me, I love covering topics about what you should do in situations where both money and manners are involved. I could think of no better example than what needs to happen with an engagement ring if a couple are to split before the wedding.

Engagement Rings: A History
First, a little quick and dirty backstory on why engagement rings exist in the first place; while mired in the romance of today's wedding industry, the genesis of the engagement ring is actually much more practical and business-like. Engagement rings functioned as a retainer for a merger between two families, a little insurance policy that the deal would go through.

As someone currently selling my home, the idea of the engagement ring is very similar to the idea of earnest money. A buyer puts up earnest money in good faith they are going to close on the home. Because I've received a financial concession, I (also in good faith) take my house off the market. If the buyer backs out then I should get to keep the earnest money because I took my home off the market for a certain period of time.

This metaphor is becoming belabored, but you get the idea.

Also according to this Salon article, many engagements included a little naughty sampling of the bride, even though brides were presumed chaste until the wedding night. This "sampling" is why the female was entitled to keep the ring if an engagement broke off, most likely because her social circles would consider her damaged goods.

Engagement Ring Etiquette
So, if we follow traditions of yesteryear that means in the event of a breakup, the woman gets to keep the engagement ring no matter what. Depending upon the laws of the state you live in, the ring (typically given by a man) may be considered a "gift" in the eyes of the law, in which case the groom may have to forfeit rights to the ring in the event the split is particularly contentious.

All things considered, it's generally a good idea for whoever called off the engagement to forfeit the ring. If it's the lady, she should give it back. If it's the guy, he should let it go.

What if the parting of ways is "mutual?"

Then it makes sense to sell the ring and divide the proceeds equally. This is especially fair in the event the bride (or the bride's family) has put down deposits for wedding related costs they will be unable to get back.

You can sell your diamond anywhere by doing a quick Google search, but you want to be careful that its with someone reputable. Diamond Lighthouse has great online resources for those looking to specifically sell old engagement rings, although they help with other diamond jewelry as well.

What if we marry and then divorce? Can I get the ring back?

 Typically in divorce proceedings the engagement ring is the brides to keep free and clear because, technically, the marriage contract was fulfilled. This awesome Huffington Post article details that in some cases exceptions may be made for family heirlooms.

Things Are Tough Enough as It is: Keep Things Polite
As per usual when money and emotions collide it can get complicated -- fast. My best advice is that even though you may be angry, hurt, and exhausted is to try and keep things as civil as possible. Communicate clearly and openly about what to do with the engagement ring, who will be handling the sale, and when payment can be expected. The sooner you wrap things up, the sooner you can move on.