THE BLOG

Engagement Ring Law and Other Romance-Based Litigation

05/05/2015 03:31 pm ET | Updated May 05, 2016

This comment provides a very brief educational overview of civil (non-criminal) engagement ring law and other romance based litigation. Always consult an experienced attorney and other professionals in all family law matters.

Sentiment and customary etiquette aside, engagement rings are property. Ownership litigation arises, to list a few examples, when an engagement ends prior to marriage, or when a divorce or death occurs.

Historically, English common law frequently analyzed the fault of the engaged parties, awarding ownership of the engagement ring to the innocent person. Modern state law varies state-by-state with several possible outcomes in situations occurring prior to marriage:

1. The individual at fault for the break-up loses ownership of the engagement ring (called a "fault" approach).

2. The ring is a completed gift that need not be returned (especially if given on a traditional gift giving holiday).

3. The ring is a conditional gift and if a marriage does not occur, regardless of fault, it must be returned (called a "no fault" approach).

4. Whether or not the ring must be returned depends upon the total circumstances on a case-by-case basis.

A no fault approach is the trending majority rule. In part, this reflects the simple efficiency of the no fault approach as well as the rise of no fault divorce.

Apart from engagement rings, romantic or courtship gifts litigation generally requires a detailed analysis of the specific facts. For example, was money advanced as a loan, a completed gift, or a gift conditioned upon marriage occurring? Was marriage contemplated when the gift was made? A suitor's gifts where no promise to marry was made by the recipient (donee) are often considered absolute and irrevocable. Gifts conditioned upon marriage are typically revocable. Civil and criminal fraud cases may be brought against a "gold digger" who manipulates a relationship for financial advantage. In some situations gifts may be revocable because the giver (donor) is declared mentally incompetent.

The English common law allowed monetary damages for a "breach (breaking) of promise to marry." Unchastity, a current marriage, and certain hereditary conditions and diseases could be defenses to a lawsuit. A lawsuit for "alienation of affections" imposed liability upon one who obtained the affections of another's spouse (often, but not always, involving desertion). "Criminal conversation" imposed liability for committing adultery with another's spouse. "Seduction" lawsuits related to a chase, unmarried woman who was improperly induced to engage in sexual intercourse. While most states have abolished these "heart balm" legal actions, assume nothing and have an experienced legal professional research the law in your jurisdiction. Cases do still occasionally appear. Courts, in jurisdictions that have abolished these legal actions, typically dismiss lawsuits based upon fraud or emotional distress when the facts fall within events covered by the traditional legal actions.

However, lawsuits based upon photos posted on the internet are allowed under a privacy-based legal theory. Also often allowed, between spouses as well as unmarried persons, are lawsuits based upon intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligence, and exposure to sexually transmitted diseases. Fraud litigation is possible, particularly when related to a marital property division in divorce. Spousal immunity (one spouse cannot sue another) has been abolished in many states. These complex situations are beyond the scope of this brief comment.

Will a bankruptcy filing by a defendant invalidate a monetary judgment based upon one of the above mentioned legal actions? Judgments based upon willful and malicious injuries cannot be discharged in bankruptcy. Negligence based judgments frequently may be dismissed in bankruptcy. Consequently, the precise language contained in the judgment in question is critical to this analysis. Bankruptcy is beyond the scope of this brief comment.

Assuming a lawful marriage exists, rings would be marital property to be divided in a divorce. A "secret" unknown unofficial marriage will not qualify as a common law marriage in a state that recognizes common law marriage. Parties must hold themselves out to the public as husband and wife. Lost or destroyed rings may also be considered by a family law judge. The judge frequently has broad discretion in dividing marital property.

A related question is if funds spent by a spouse upon an affair while married must be accounted for in a divorce property division. This depends upon the law in the state in question and whether or not the funds were jointly owned by the spouses. The complexities of divorce and related marital property divisions are beyond the scope of this brief comment.

Upon death, heirs may claim ownership of rings. If an individual believes that death will occur from a current illness and gives the ring to another individual in contemplation of death from this specific illness, a "gift causa mortis" has occurred. If the giver dies of this illness, then the gift is completed and irrevocable. However, if the individual recovers from this illness, the gift is automatically revoked regardless of who has possession of the ring. Death may subsequently result from a different cause. In this event, a will or other probate proceeding will determine ownership of the ring.

Much factually interesting (to observers but personally tragic to the parties) litigation exists. This short comment only provides a very brief educational overview of a complex topic and does not constitute legal advice. Always consult an experienced attorney in specific family law and marital property situations.