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The Rules of Engagement: When the weddings bells won’t sing, who gets the ring?

If you received a $15,000 + engagement ring, would you throw it in the bin? This was the question raised in the matter of Papathanasopoulos v Vacopoulos in the NSW Supreme Court. In 2005 Mr Vacopoulos proposed to Ms Papathonsopoulos, only to have her call off the engagement 10 days later. While Mr Vacopoulos originally told his ex-fiancé to keep the ring because it was a gift, he changed his mind and sued her after she threw the ring (along with other reminders of their relationship) in the bin. 

Historically, the giving of an engagement ring was part of a ‘marriage contract.’ One party received a ring, while the other was gifted the promise of marriage. This concept was used to define who kept the ring should the engagement be broken off. In earlier times, if a man broke off an engagement, the woman kept the ring as a form of compensation. However, if the woman called off the engagement, she had to return the ring. However, under modern law, there is no legal onus that an engagement ring must be returned upon separation.

Initially, the Local Court found for Mr Vacopoulos and ordered Ms Papathonsopoulos to compensate Mr Vacopoulos for the amount of the ring.  Ms Papathonsopoulos appealed to the Supreme Court, claiming it was gift.

Justice Smart of the Supreme Court found that Ms Papathonsopoulos was the holder of a conditional gift and the engagement ring would only become property after their marriage  took place. In the end Ms Papathonsopoulos was ordered to pay Mr Vacopoulos the cost of the ring. 

In 1926, McCardie J in  Cohen v Sellar provided the following guidelines in relation to who should keep the ring:

(a) If a woman who has received a ring in contemplation of marriage refuses to fulfil the conditions of the gift, she must return it.

(b) If a man has, without a recognised legal justification, refused to carry out his promise of marriage, he cannot demand the return of the engagement ring.

(c) It matters not in law that the repudiation of the promise may turn out to the ultimate advantage of both parties. A judge must apply the existing law as to the limits of justification for breach;

(d) If the engagement to marry be dissolved by mutual consent, then in the absence of agreement to the contrary, the engagement ring and like gifts must be returned by each party to the other.

Justice Smart confirmed the law that a woman who receives a ring in contemplation of marriage, and who later refuses to marry, must return the ring unless there is some legal justification for her decision – for example acts of violence towards her, or evidence that her fiancé was unfaithful. Justice Smart found that there was no such justification in this case.

Of course, once parties marry or are deemed to be in a de facto relationship, the engagement ring can become property of the parties to be divided under family law.  In that event, an exercise then needs to occur about determining adjustments, if any, should be made to the parties for their contributions to their property and also for future circumstances.

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