Give Me the Ring Back!

When written promises are binding in failed engagements.

By Drew York

Client Page

On Valentine’s Day, Zack takes Kelly, his high school sweetheart who goes to a different college, to the Max for a romantic dinner. At the end of the meal Zack says, “Kelly, I want us to promise each other that after college we’ll both move back to Bayside and get married. Will you marry me?” Kelly responds, “Oh Zack, that’s wonderful! I love you so much and I promise.” Delighted, Zack puts the engagement ring on Kelly’s finger and says, “That’s great Kelly! Now there’s one more thing—I spent every dime I made working last summer on this ring. Will you promise me that if we don’t get married after college you’ll return this ring?” Kelly writes on her napkin, “I promise to return my engagement ring if we don’t get married after college,” signs her name, and gives it to Zack.

Two years later, Kelly decides to make a surprise visit to Zack’s school one weekend. When she arrives, she finds Zack at a party kissing another woman. “You two-timing slimeball! We’re through and never getting married,” Kelly says. Zack asks for the ring back and Kelly refuses. Three months later Zack sues Kelly for the ring. He still has Kelly’s napkin from Valentine’s Day. Does he have a good case even though he’s a pig?


Written promises around engagements are enforceable.
We covered this topic many years ago under a different fictitious scenario and the law has not changed since then. Zack is entitled to the ring. Kelly promised in writing to return the ring if they did not get married after college. Importantly, Kelly’s written promise was not conditioned on who broke off the engagement or why it was broken off. Thus, Zack gets the ring although his actions caused Kelly to call off the engagement.


What if Kelly didn’t give Zack the napkin?
Then Kelly probably gets to keep the ring because it was Zack’s fault that the engagement ended, even though she called it off. In the absence of an enforceable written agreement, Texas follows the conditional gift rule, which requires Kelly (the donee) to return the ring to Zack (the donor) if she is at fault in terminating the engagement. But Texas courts allow the donee to keep the ring if he or she can prove that there was a justified reason for calling off the engagement. Zack’s cheating should be enough in absence of other facts.


While some people might find the conditional gift rule offensive, other people may see it as a reasonable approach. Regardless, it’s important to remember that if you have significant assets you are bringing into a new marriage, you may want to consult with an attorney about whether you should have a prenuptial agreement in place in case the marriage does not work out.TBJ

This article, which originally appeared on, has been edited and reprinted with permission. While the names and places reference characters and locales from a popular television series in the ’80s, this depiction is fictional.

Drew York

DREW YORK is a partner in the Dallas office of Gray Reed & McGraw, where he focuses on class action and mass tort (both plaintiff and defense) and complex commercial litigation disputes.

This content is for informational purposes only. Consult an attorney regarding specific legal questions.

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