Property Division, Sharing & The Matrimonial Home

The Marriage Was Called Off: Was Engagement Ring a Conditional Gift Requiring Return?

wedding rings

The former couple, who never married, had managed to settle most of their claims against each other with the help of lawyers.  However, they were unable resolve a handful of remaining issues that still needed to be resolved at a trial before a judge, where they represented themselves.

These outstanding issues included the ownership of a $3,500 engagement ring the man had given the woman.  Now that the relationship was over, he wanted it back.

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By way of background:  The man was employed by the Ontario Provincial Police; the woman worked for the Department of National Defence. They moved in together in December 2009.  At some point, the man proposed to the woman, and gave her an engagement ring.  She accepted.

However, the man was arrested and removed from the home in 2015 after being charged with domestic violence against the woman.  He plead guilty and received a conditional discharge and two years’ probation. The relationship ended in early 2017, when the woman discovered that the man already had a new girlfriend.

The resulting fallout saw the former couple make claims against each other for various items of property.  Among other things, the man asked the court to order the engagement ring returned. On that issue, the court began the narrative this way:

The [man] proposed marriage to the [woman].  He produced an engagement ring.  His evidence was that the ring was given conditional on marriage.  Importantly, that was not disputed.

The [man’s] position was that as the condition of the gift — being marriage — was not fulfilled, he is entitled to the ring back.  The [woman’s] position was that as it was the [man’s] fault that the marriage did not take place, at law she does not have to return the ring.  The parties came prepared to do battle over whether it was indeed the [man’s] fault.  I refused to hear that evidence ….

The court explained that under the provisions of the provincial Marriage Act, in connection with the ring’s ownership it could not hear evidence that was tantamount to finger-pointing by one party against the other. That legislation provides that where one person makes a gift to another in contemplation of, or conditional upon, their marriage to each other, and the marriage fails to take place or is abandoned, then the fault of the parting giving the gift is not considered in determining whether the gift-giver has the right to recover it.

Instead the only true legal question – as set by long-established caselaw – was whether had been a “timely demand” by the man for the ring back.   The former couple agreed that the ring was a conditional gift.  The man had been the one to break the engagement.  If he failed to promptly ask for the ring back, then under the common law he was “estopped” or prevented from later seeking its return.  Moreover, any delay in his demanding the ring back served to change its character from a conditional gift, to an unconditional one.

Here, it was only in early 2017 (when the existence of the man’s new girlfriend came to light) that it was clear the relationship was at an end.  Although the man did not lead evidence as to when he first asked for the ring back, the documents showed that its ownership was broached only seven months before trial, in correspondence exchanged between the parties in 2019.

On the other hand, the woman’s evidence showed she would not suffer any prejudice because of the man’s delay in requesting the ring’s return.  She had not sold the ring, but admitted that she had no emotional attachment to it.  She conceded that if the court were to determine that the man was entitled to it, she would have to return it.

With that in mind, the court ultimately ruled as follows:

The engagement ring was a gift conditional on a marriage that did not take place … and I therefore find that the [man] still owns it and is entitled to it.  The [woman] shall deliver the ring to him within ten days.

For the full text of the decision, see:

King v. Mann, 2020 ONSC 108 (CanLII)

FamilyLLB is written by Russell Alexander, a collaborative family lawyer based in Ontario, Canada who has helped his clients for over twenty years. Russell Alexander Collaborative Family Lawyers practice in all aspects of family law including separation and divorce, property division, child support, child custody and access, and spousal support.