The engagement is off. Can you keep the ring? Depends on where you live.

There is a New Mexico case involving a dispute over an engagement ring. Vigil v. Haber, 119 N.M. 9, 888 P.2d 455 (1994). Glenn and Jannel exchanged engagement rings when they were getting along, but immediately their relationship began to deteriorate. Within a few months, Jannel was seeking a restraining order to keep Glenn away from her. A dispute about Jannel’s ring was referred to the local district court judge.

Glenn wanted his ring back. Marriage is a contract, an engagement is a contract to enter into a contract, and restoring the status quo ante is a standard judicial remedy when the contract is rescinded. Jannel argued, however, and the district judge agreed, that since Glenn was “at fault” for the deterioration of the relationship, Jannel could keep the ring.

Jannel’s argument might win in many states. Most states, in fact, follow a rule of “fault”, or “equitable estoppel” from contract law. A court applying an “estoppel” rule refuses to intervene to order the ring to be returned to the party in the “wrong”.

Other states, such as New Mexico in this case, remove fault-finding from the personal-relationship dynamics of marriage and divorce. Although technically marriage is a contract, other social concerns apply. "Usually the conduct of both spouses contributes to the failure of a marriage . . . establishing guilt and innocence is not really useful." Id., quoting Dixon v. Dixon 319 N.W.2d 846, 851 (Wis. 1982). New Mexico was the first state to legislatively recognize “no fault” divorce, in 1973. In this case, the Court applies the same policy to engagements.

Held: Jannel has to give the ring back.