We all know that not all relationships are meant to last – indeed, some of them don’t even get out of the starting gate. When an engagement is broken, there is the time-honored question of who gets to keep the ring.
In the older cases, some of which date back a century or more, the courts parse the question by considering who did the “breaking” – i.e. letting the jilted bride keep the ring, or allowing the rejected groom to insist it be returned to him, as the case may be. From a technical legal standpoint, sometimes courts will look at whether the ring was a “conditional gift”, meaning one that that presupposes that the marriage will actually take place.
In a more recent decision in a Small Claims Court case called Mastromatteo v. Dayball, the court takes a pragmatic approach to these kinds of situations:
Defendant [the putative groom] claims $4,000 for the engagement ring which he purchased and gave to plaintiff [the intended bride] when he proposed. …
The gift of an engagement ring to my mind is just that – a gift. The notion that the ring must be returned if the marriage does not occur appears to me to be inconsistent both with the nature of a gift and with the modern law relating to marriage.
The court pointed out that the modern-day provincial Marriage Act precludes actions for a “breach of promise to marry or for any damages resulting therefrom” and requires that any right to recover a gift made “in contemplation or conditional upon their marriage” must consider whether the person giving the gift was at fault for the marriage not happening. In observing that the common-law in this area was murky, the court added:
In the absence of any clear common law rule on whether a ring must be returned, I would incline to the position that a gift is a gift. Once perfected by delivery, it cannot be recovered. Since a promise to marry cannot be enforced, and long after divorce on a no-fault basis became accepted in Canada, the concept of a battle over ownership of the engagement ring appears artificial and anomalous at the very least. At a time when our law makes particular efforts to promote settlement, discourage litigation and narrow the scope of litigation when it is required in family law disputes, permitting ownership of gifted rings to be litigated based on a series of differing rules with no clear result, appears undesirable.
The promise of marriage is unenforceable and was unenforceable at the moment it was made along with the gifted ring. It appears undesirable for the law to permit enforcement in relation to only the gift part of that transaction when the larger transaction is itself unenforceable and in that sense legally faultless. If viewed as a matter of first impression I would find that the ring was a gift perfected by delivery and cannot now be reclaimed, whether as damages or as recovery of possession of the object itself.
The court did acknowledge there were a large number of prior (and often-inconsistent) court decisions, and summarized the upshot this way:
The net effect of the authorities appears to be this: the ring may or may not be recoverable; that decision may or may not turn on who broke off the engagement; and the donor may or may not be too late to claim recovery if he or she does not do so immediately upon breakup. No one could describe that state of the law as a model of clarity.
For the full text of the decision, see:
Mastromatteo v. Dayball,  O.J. No. 1600 (Sm. Cl.)