Who Keeps the Engagement Ring After Separation in Alberta?

By Matthew Wirove, Calgary Family Lawyer

A question I hear a lot is, what happens to the engagement ring if we break up? As is so often the case in family law, the answer really depends on the circumstances. The main factor is what stage were the parties in their relationship when they separated. If they were married, then the division of the rings is subject to the provisions of the Alberta Matrimonial Property Act (MPA). The Matrimonial Property Act states that any assets acquired by a spouse before marriage is exempt from distribution in the event of separation. Therefore, an engagement ring gifted from husband to wife prior to the marriage would be exempt as the wife’s property upon a separation. 

However, if the parties break up prior to the marriage there is likely a different result. Alberta Courts view engagement rings as “conditional gifts” that are given on the ‘condition’ that the parties will eventually marry. Generally, if an engagement is broken and the parties never marry, the engagement ring is returned to the gifting party.

It should be noted that it is irrelevant who caused the break-up in this situation. Any blameworthy conduct does not preclude the gifting party from recovering the engagement ring. Section 102 of the Family Law Act, which is clearly in line with the no fault divorce system in Canada, states:

Gifts in contemplation of marriage
102   If a person makes a gift to another person in contemplation of or conditional on their marriage to each other and the marriage fails to occur, the question of whether the failure was the fault of the person making the gift shall not be considered in determining the right of that person to recover the gift.

However, there are always exceptions to the above general rules. In McManus v. McCarthy, 2007 ABQB 783 the Court found that after the fourth proposal, the husband had made it clear to the wife that the ring was conditional on them remaining engaged and also remaining married. The parties did marry, but the marriage only lasted nine days. Due to the specific conditional nature of the gift of the ring, which included a condition on staying married, the Court did not follow the normal rule for married couples under the Matrimonial Property Act and ordered that the engagement ring be returned to the husband.

In Bhachu v. Brown, 2019 ABQB 150 the Court found that the engagement ring should be kept by the party who received it, even though the parties did not marry and the ‘condition’ was not met. The receiving party was able to keep the ring because of the long period of about 5 years during which the parties were engaged with no evidence of any concrete plans towards marriage. As well, there was evidence that both parties gifted rings to each other. This case shows us that the Court will closely consider the intention of the gifting party and any evidence that diminishes the conditional nature of an engagement ring, like a long engagement with no real plans to marry, may lead to the Court finding that the conditional nature of the gift did not exist. It is also important to note here that any delay in requesting the ring back could also be an indication that it was intended as an absolute gift.

If you need more information about who would keep an engagement ring, or have any questions about the division of matrimonial property, the Calgary family lawyers at Crossroads Law can help. We also provide flat rate separation agreements and legal coaching services for those who prefer to represent themselves in family court.