Who gets to keep the engagement ring in a breakup? We investigate.

After 10 months lugging around a whopping 20-carat diamond engagement ring, Paris Hilton’s left ring finger is suddenly bare.

According to People, the hotel heiress turned fragrance and accessories entrepreneur split from fiance Chris Zylka “a few weeks ago”. An insider told the publication that the 37-year-old ended things because their relationship had “moved too fast” and she realised he simply wasn’t right for her.

In the wake of the breakup, Zylka, an actor who starred in The Amazing Spider Man, is demanding the $2.75 million rock back.

If the rumours that Hilton ended the relationship are true, then under Californian law, he does get to keep the ring. But what about here in Australia?

Who gets the ring?

Like most things to do with a breakup, it’s kind of complicated.

Firstly, it depends if you and your partner were legally de facto before you split. Under the Family Law Act, a de facto couple is one that has been “living together on a genuine domestic basis”. If that’s the case, the ring would be deemed ‘property’ and distributed accordingly. This can be done privately or, if you can’t agree, a settlement can be reached through the courts.

As the Family Court notes, there’s no set formula for who gets what in a property settlement. The decision will be based on a number of factors, including: the length of the relationship, debts and assets, your financial and non-financial contributions to the relationship, along with your future requirements, based on your age, ability to earn and so on.

Where the engagement ring lands will vary case to case.

paris hilton engagement ring
DEAR. GOD. Look at it. Image: Instagram.

What if you weren't de facto?

If you are not legally de facto - in other words you haven't been living together prior to your breakup - then it gets a bit trickier.

As Legalvision notes, in these cases, there's still no set legislation. Instead, "it appears that the law sees an engagement ring as a ‘conditional gift'." Which essentially means that it acts like a deposit of sorts in an agreement to marry.

This is based on a pretty savage case that played out in the NSW Supreme Court in 2007, in which a couple exchanged engagement rings in front of their family, but the bride-to-be broke off the engagement ten days later. Not only that, she tossed the $15,250 ring in the rubbish.

"The judge found that the woman, having rejected the gift of the ring, breached the applicable agreement and was ordered to pay her broken hearted ex-lover the monetary equivalent of the ring’s value, plus [legal] costs," Legalvision explained.

The Court summarised the issue with these principles:

  1. If the person who has received a ring in contemplation of marriage refuses to fulfil the conditions of the gift, he/she must return the ring;
  2. If the giver refuses to carry out his/her promise of marriage, without legal justification, he/she cannot demand the return of the ring;
  3. If the engagement is ended mutually, then in the absence of any agreement to the contrary, the engagement ring and similar gifts must be returned by each party to the other.

Of course, if the recipient of the ring has legal justification for the decision to end the relationship - including violence or an affair - he or she is not obliged to return it.

Thankfully it seems to be pretty rare that engagement ring disputes actually end up in front of a judge. A Slater and Gordon's Heather McKinnon told ABC radio recently, lawyers are handling more and more of these cases but the majority are settled out of court.

"It is centuries of tradition and it seems that, in this culture, it is still something that people abide by," she said. "Usually the girl who pulls the pins says, 'here's your ring back'."

So romantic.

Be sure to consult your lawyer for advice on your specific circumstances.

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