Can an ex-fiance go to court to get the ring back?

Whether you have to return a wedding ring if the wedding is called off depends on where you live and under what circumstances the ring came into your possession. It may also depend on who broke the engagement.

In the convoluted world of domestic relations, perhaps nothing is more confusing than the so-called "heart balm" statutes that were made the law in each of the various states, and then abolished more than a half century ago to be replaced with a hodgepodge of custom and modernity.

For the past 30 years, at least in New York, persons not under any impediment to marry have had the right to recover property given in contemplation of a marriage that didn't occur.

But in California, the courts have long called the gift of an engagement ring "implied conditional," and require its return on the breaking of the engagement by the recipient of the gift. However, if the man breaks the engagement, he cannot obtain the ring.

Engagement rings differ from other rings or jewelry in a number of states, which clearly are gifts that have no relationship to a marriage. And, if the relationship breaks up and the man wants it back, he must be prepared to lose the argument and to have no legal redress.

Other typical engagement gifts that are given by the intended to the beloved are treated the same way as state law treats the engagement ring.

When a marriage breaks up, there is a divorce, and the laws of all 50 states are geared to deal with it. An engagement breakup is less typical, and causes more headaches precisely because the parties frequently have no agreement that defines their rights.

There are a number of cases in which a married man, awaiting dissolution of a prior marriage, has become involved with a prospect for the position soon to be opening up, and gives an "engagement" ring to seal the transaction. If the relationship sours, the man cannot obtain the ring back since he lacked the legal right to enter the contract in the first place--because he was still married.

It's not the "right" emotional way to begin a marriage or an engagement, but if there is a valuable heirloom that you are planning to give your beloved, you may want to obtain a prenuptial agreement in which the disposition of this or other property is made clear should the marriage or the engagement sour, or if there is a problem in the short term following the marriage.

A prenuptial agreement is something that every contemporary couple planning to marry ought to carefully consider. It outlines certain rights, creates certain liabilities, but most important, sets forth what each party entering into matrimony expects of the other. It may sound callous, and may not be for everyone, but if the assets of the parties are sufficient, it is in the interest of both to do so while their heads are clear, and before the parties plan a life together.

If the assets aren't substantial, but the issues are the same, the parties can draw up a letter of agreement on their own: "We agree that in the event that the marriage does not take place that the following is the disposition of gifts received, including the engagement ring."

Caution should always be exercised with antenuptial agreements, which are similar to prenuptial agreements but created after the marriage. The reason: courts are reluctant to enforce them in the first place, and will construe them strictly against the draftsperson.