In today’s New York Post, there is an article by Kieran Crowley and Lorena Mongelli about a Long Island, New York law suit filed by a man to obtain the return of the engagement ring that he gave to his fiance’, who had been his high school sweetheart.  Apparently, she refused to return the engagement ring and broke off the engagement after learning that he allegedly cheated on her.  She counterclaimed that she suffered from emotional distress as a result of his actions.

The judge ruled that state law allows a person to get back property that was given "in contemplation of marriage" if the marriage doesn’t occur. The judge wrote that "Consequently,fault in the breakup of an engagement is irrelevant."

As noted by Apple Sulit-Peralejo in a blog post on this blog last October, the law in New Jersey regarding this issue is essentially the same.

Whether an asset is exempt is a common issue that arises in divorce case.  The general rule is that an asset acquired prior to the marriage which is not commingled is exempt from equitable distribution.  In addition, an asset that is received via inheritance and/or third party gift is also exempt as long as it is not commingled.  Commingling is essentially putting an asset into joint names or depositing it into a joint account.  Changing something from someones own name into joint names is deemed as making a gift to the marriage.

Also, the law is clear that the person who seeks to have an asset deemed exempt has the burden of proving that the asset is exempt.

Because an engagement ring is a premarital gift, albeit a conditional gift, from one spouse to to the other, it is exempt from equitable distribution.  If the ring is replaced and/or enhanced during the marriage, while the original stone, if it exists, remains exempt, the new ring is not exempt.  In fact, any gifts between spouses during the marriage are not exempt and are subject to equitable distribution on divorce.  As such, some times we are required to have jewelry, furs, and other expensive presents appraised to determine their value for equitable distribution purposes.  Sometimes this task is made a little easier because parties have appraisals for insurance purposes which is why we often ask for the homeowners insurance policy riders.

The premarital portion of retirement assets, i.e. IRAs, 401ks, pensions, are typically exempt. For defined contributions plans (ie. the accounts with cash balances), the trouble may be finding or obtaining the documents to establish the premarital values.  That said, even though the premarital values are often commingled with contributions made during the marriage, the premarital portions are typically exempt.  Contrast that with a regular premarital bank account where deposits are made during the marriage using marital income.  Many would argue that this account has lost it’s exempt status.  Is that fair?  What is the real difference?  Perhaps the difference is that though money will usually go in and out of a bank account, there usually is not the same type of two way activity as to retirement accounts.


I have heard many beautiful stories about how people became engaged. Some people “pop the question” after a romantic dinner. Some do it during a romantic getaway. Some are very creative and have proposed at baseball games, on television, using banners being tugged from an airplane, on top of a mountain, etc. Clearly, those moments are very emotional and romantic. Moreover, those moments usually include the giving of a sparkling engagement ring that costs more than two months of salary…and that is being conservative. In some cases, the romance is a fleeting moment and the parties never make it to the wedding. When that happens and the wedding is OFF, who gets the engagement ring?

In New Jersey an engagement ring is considered a “conditional gift”. In other words, the ring is being given on condition that the parties will be getting married. Winer v. Winer, 241 N.J. Super. 510 (App.Div. 1990). If the engagement is broken, the condition cannot be met and the ring must be returned. Aronow v. Silver, (Ch.Div. 1989.) Notably, while other states hold that the party who unjustifiably breaks off the engagement loses the ring, in New Jersey, the Courts do not consider fault when determining who is entitled to receive the engagement ring. Id. In New Jersey, if the marriage does not occur and the person giving the engagement ring wants the ring back, the Court will render a ruling requiring return of the ring (or its value if something untoward happens to the ring for example it gets lost or destroyed.) Once the marriage occurs and the condition is met, (regardless of a subsequent divorce), the return of the ring will not be required by the Court.

Therefore, in New Jersey, until the marriage occurs, the strings on the engagement ring are still attached and can be yanked regardless of who jilts who.