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  • Writer's pictureJared Davies, Lawyer

Engagement rings in Ontario family law, examining Hamilton v Hamilton & King v Mann

What happens to the engagement ring upon breaking off the engagement? What happens to the ring upon the dissolution of the marriage? While people may have their views on the proper etiquette of said issues, the law has provided clear input.

If an engagement ring was given in contemplation of marriage but the marriage never takes place, there is a strong argument to be made that the ring ought to be returned to the donor if the request was made in a timely fashion, absent any extraneous factors such as clear evidence the ring was not contingent on marriage. However, if the parties married, then Ontario family law presumes the receiver is entitled to keep the premarital “gift”. Any increase in the value of the ring during marriage, however, ought to be split down the middle.

Marriage and the engagement ring: Hamilton v Hamilton, [1996] WDFL 2492 (ONCA)

In 1996, the Ontario Court of Appeal assured the family law community that the engagement ring is property the receiver owns at the date of marriage and is thus treated as a deduction pursuant to property division laws in the Family Law Act.

It is important to note, however, that engagement rings in marriage are treated as pre-marital property and are subject to the laws of deduction, not exclusion.

When parties were married in Ontario, property is dealt with via Part I of the Family Law Act, under Family Property. Each spouse tallies the value of their property on the date of separation, and the spouse with the lesser of the two values receives one half the difference of the values from the other spouse - subject to any deductions or exclusions.

The value of the engagement ring on the date of marriage is deducted from the owner’s side of the ledger. Thus, if the wedding ring increased in value during marriage, both spouses can actually share in the increase in value of the ring. This is unlike excluded property, which is never divided.

Breakup before marriage: King v Mann, 2020 ONSC 108

In King, the donor provided the donee with an engagement ring. However, the donor broke off the engagement before the parties married. It was the donor’s evidence that the wedding ring was given on the condition of marriage. Importantly, the donee did not dispute the fact that the ring was conditional upon marriage. However, the donee argued that because he broke off the engagement, she should get to keep the ring.

The Court promptly rejected this argument, citing section 33 of the Marriage Act. This law ensures that the fault attributable to a party of the engagement breakdown does not alter, or have any bearing, on the ownership of the conditional pre-marital gift.

Next, the Court had to consider the timing of the demand. As previous case law notes, after establishing the premarital gift was conditional upon marriage, the donor seeking the gift must act timely. Otherwise, the conditional gift turns into an unconditional gift and the donor cannot get it back.

The question left, what is considered timely? The Court analyzed this point at paragraph 38 in King:

As to equity, according to Black's Law Dictionary "estoppel" means that a party is prevented by his or her own acts from claiming a right to the detriment of the other party who was entitled to rely on such conduct and has acted accordingly. "Laches" is a form of estoppel referring to an unreasonable delay in pursuing a right or claim in a way that prejudices the party against whom relief is sought. It is distinct from a limitation period – a creature of statute not pled or raised here – which is not dependant on a finding of prejudice. In my view it would only have become clear to the parties in early 2017 that the relationship was at an end. The applicant did not lead evidence as to when he first asked for a return of the ring, however return of personal property generally was being addressed in the negotiations between counsel soon after the defacto separation, as well as in the application that was issued on November 6, 2017.

In other words, parties are bound by the common law doctrine that dictates you have to act promptly on your legal right, otherwise the right could be lost forever. Reason being, if you wait too long, it could prejudice the party you are claiming a right against. For example, if the donor did not ask for the return of the engagement ring for several years and the donee then sold it, it would prejudice the donee if they were required to return the ring that had already been sold. If a party, in this case the donor, wants to assert their right to the ring, they ought to do so in a timely fashion.

In King, it appears the Court relied partly on the donor’s post-separation Application, which occurred within a year of the separation, in finding that the Applicant was timely in his request for the engagement ring to be returned. Thus, the ring was ordered to be returned to the donor.

Obvious takeaways? The law follows a common sense approach. If a marriage does not take place, the ring ought to be returned to the donor. If the marriage does take place, the gift is absolute. Most importantly, however; who broke off the engagement or who broke off the marriage does not have any bearing on the ownership of the ring.


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