British Columbia·In Depth

Not the Royal Wedding: Meanwhile, when lovers split ...

When couples split, who gets to keep the ring?

Civil resolution tribunal is latest body to ask whether engagement ring is a contract or a gift

The law may say an engagement ring represents a contract to marry, but circumstances may lead a judge to conclude it was meant as an absolute gift. (Pressmaster/Shutterstock)

Is there anything like getting engaged?

How about splitting up and then having a knock-down, drag-out court battle over ownership of the engagement ring: does anything say 'we're done' quite like it?

This week, B.C.'s Civil Resolution Tribunal became the latest legal body to weigh in on a question of jurisprudence that hovers above the uncoupled carcasses of centuries worth of broken betrothal.

Is a ring a gift or a symbol of a contract?

"The law that governs the issue in this dispute is very clear," wrote tribunal member Tony Wilson.

Wilson was asked to decide whether or not Sean Pitcher had a right to keep the $1,000 ring he once placed on Beverly Bruce's finger.

'The light of an adventurer'

The law may be clear, but the circumstances behind any relationship break-up are usually anything but.

The bottom line as far as the courts is concerned — as Wilson says — is that a ring represents an agreement to get married.

But sometimes it's a gift as well. Which is where the intentions of the giver come in.

Lady Justice, blindfolded and holding balanced scales, has been settling engagement ring disputes since 1742. (Peter Scobie/CBC)

In making his decision, Wilson cited precedents that in turn cite precedent dating back to the English courts of 1742.

Back then, Phillip Yorke, Lord Chancellor Hardwicke, heard a complaint from a rake who attempted to impress a 16-year-old girl with presents of £120 only to see her marry someone else.

"If a person who makes addresses on a view of marriage, and a reasonable expectation of success, gives presents, and the lady deceives him afterwards, the presents ought to be returned," the Lord Chancellor wrote.

But that wasn't the end of it.

Hardwicke went on to find that the gentleman in the case at hand was to be viewed more "in the light of an adventurer" who took a risk at love and lost.

And so the confusion began.

'He said I don't want the ring'

The Hardwicke case was cited in a 2016 Kamloops B.C. Supreme Court decision in which a modern-day "adventurer" was denied his bid to get back a $17,500 ring he bought for his former fiancee, along with money he paid to settle her debts.

Mr. S — as he was known — was a 64-year-old millionaire who proposed to Ms. R on Christmas Day 2014. They split up less than two weeks later after an intimate episode that left Ms R convinced Mr. S "was a monster."

A Kamloops man lost out on his B.C. Supreme Court bid to force his former fiancée to return a $17K engagement ring and repay a $85K. (SK Design/Shutterstock)

But he was also a generous guy, and in assessing his claim to get his money back, the judge decided Mr. S had given the engagement ring as "an absolute gift."

Ms. R claimed he said as much when they initially broke up and she tried to give him back his stuff.

"He said 'I don't want this'," she testified. "And I said 'Well, I don't want this ring. It represents marriage and I'm not really interested in keeping it ... He said 'I don't want the ring' and he gave it back to me and said 'Why don't you try to take it back.'"

Except she didn't, and then he sued her.

'The marriage did not take place'

The same argument has played out in courts across the country with varying results: "I gave it to you because you said you'd marry me"; "I thought it was a gift."

In 2005, a Saskatchewan woman attempted to argue that the whole thing was "an anachronistic law that discriminates against women."

But the judge in that case said regardless of the gender on either side of the proposal, the remedy sought when love fails might still be the same.

Last year, a Nova Scotia adjudicator ruled that the most important element in deciding who got to keep the ring was who ended the engagement. A would-be bride got to hang on to her diamonds because the groom left her at the altar.

And in 2013, a fight over a $16,500 engagement ring erupted into a shouting match outside B.C. Supreme Court when Charlie Zampieri sued ex-fiancee Jessica Bennett.

They both claimed the ring was a symbol: for him of a broken contract, and for her of "a man that loved me — that didn't do the right thing."

Jessica Bennett, left, and Charlie Zampieri fought over an engagement ring outside B.C. Supreme Court back in 2013. (CBC)

In settling the civil resolution tribunal dispute, Wilson declined to go into matters surrounding the breakdown of the relationship between Pitcher and Bruce.

He said it wasn't relevant to the legal issue. And he couldn't find any evidence to suggest the ring came without strings attached.

"It is my decision that the engagement ring was conditional upon marriage," Wilson wrote.

"Given the law set out above, I find the ring remains the respondent's property because the marriage did not take place."

And that's the final word on the engagement ring debate.

Until next time.

About the Author

Jason Proctor

@proctor_jason

Jason Proctor is a reporter in British Columbia for CBC News and has covered the B.C. courts and mental health issues in the justice system extensively.

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