What case law tells us about who keeps the rings at the dissolution of a relationship

by Kelsey Leahy

We often see clients in property settlements who despair over who should be entitled to keep whose weddings rings. Some clients believe that whoever ended the relationship should return their ring, and others say that whoever paid for the ring is entitled to have it returned. But what does the law say?

Engagement Ring
For quite some time, the law surrounding an engagement ring derived from an old English case heard in 1926 (Cohen v Seller). This case held that an engagement ring is a conditional gift given on the promise to marry, and should the marriage not eventuate, then there is an implied condition that the ring is to be returned to the person who gifted it.

This notion has since been challenged, and more recently in 2017, a Magistrates Court in New South Wales (Toh v Su) departed from the English authority and held that an engagement ring is not regarded as a conditional gift and to do is against the ‘essential philosophy’ of the modern developments of the law concerning marriage and family. The Magistrate held that an engagement ring should now be seen as a gift given absolutely and the receiver of the ring is not required to return the ring at the breakdown of the engagement.

In this case the Magistrate found there to be no intention by the parties to form a legally binding contract in exchanging and accepting the engagement ring. This is important to note as it serves as a timely reminder as to how the law can affect people’s day-to-day lives.

So what about wedding rings?

Wedding Ring/Band
Once the parties are married, the wedding rings are seen to be the property of each person; i.e. the wife owns her wedding ring(s) and the husband owns his wedding band. This is due to the rings being what is called an inter vivos gift. An inter vivos gift is a gift made during life. Therefore, when exchanging wedding rings upon marriage, the parties have exchanged the rings for life.

In the above case of Toh v Su, the parties had bought wedding rings in preparation of their wedding. The Magistrate held that the parties were required to return the wedding rings to each other as in this circumstance, the rings were not given as gifts; instead they were deemed to be held for safekeeping.

Notwithstanding the above, the law in Queensland is still not entirely clear on this subject, and therefore each circumstance gives rise to individual situations which may impact the decision on who gets to keep the rings. It is because of this that we strongly recommend people seek legal advice when going through a property settlement to ensure the advice is tailored to their individual circumstances.