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Love And The Law, Part I: Does An Engagement Ring Need To Be Returned?

Posted: 12/13/07 07:08 AM ET

If the ring fits . . .does an engagement ring have to be returned?

(And given that Christmas is the most popular day for engagements, the answer may be particularly relevant right now ! ! !)

There's never been a time in my life that I didn't know my rights. Almost since I could talk (ok, argue), my father the lawyer was teaching me about yes, the law. And, for as long as I can remember, I have been his sounding board of reason. I've always understood that the law is really just a set of rules, established by those who are trying to create a civilized society. By making murder a crime, we dissuade people from killing. By honoring signed contracts, we enforce obligations that were agreed to. By having rules relating to driving, we create safer roads. And when there is dispute, each person may hire someone to help him or her resolve the conflict (a lawyer), sometimes having to appear before a neutral person for help (a judge). Sometimes, even, factual decisions are rendered by a group of so-called reasonable peers (a jury). And so, my becoming a lawyer was not given much thought - it was ordained. And I loved law school! I know, hard for some to imagine. But learning rules of law, determined by the reasonable people before me who were trying to make our lives more orderly and predictable, was fun! And it built upon the foundation of my father's teachings. Ok, it's true, I'm really linear.

So I was initiated early on, and my training comes in handy. Not only do I understand what I read and hear in the news, feel confident when arguing with my contractor, but I often intrigue my friends with the answers to the practical conundrums they face in the course of their everyday life, especially those of my girlfriends, and especially those relating to love! And because women don't always have such easy access to the answers they need, I thought I'd share my guidance. So here it is, "Love and The Law" - a glimpse into the responses of one girlfriend to another -- because every woman should know her rights!

Just last week, my oldest friend broke off her engagement. Without too many specifics, they had been together for many years, engaged for two. They lived in her home, both are high-powered and successful in their work, and both are intricately involved in the other's life. He moved out. Next, he asked for her engagement ring back. Her instinct was to say no. After all, wasn't it a gift? And hadn't she said yes to the proposal? Hadn't she already owned it for two years? She was out of pocket for the wedding dress, and many wedding day deposits - would he reimburse her for those? Shouldn't there be an offset of all the costs? How about the opportunity cost of her time betrothed to him? How about the fact that he had cheated on her? He caused the break-up, not her. So as you can imagine, I had an earful. And she asked for my guidance.

So I guide you all... when does an engagement ring have to be returned?

It is no longer universal, but the law has transpired like this: Courts have generally treated the engagement ring as a gift, clearly recognizing the three elements necessary for something to be considered a legal gift. That is,

1) intent to give the item as a gift
2) delivery
3) acceptance of the item

But it doesn't end there. The engagement ring is also deemed to be a conditional gift. That means, until some future event occurs, the gift isn't final. (Only Montana holds to the contrary, rejecting the conditional gift theory, and deeming an engagement ring an unconditional, completed gift when the receiver agrees to marry.) Yet, when divining who gets to keep the ring, states do not agree on whether it should matter who did the breaking up or why. (So where you live matters!)

The majority approach follows the traditional "fault-based" common law (derived from English and Roman law) -- whoever prevented the condition from happening forfeits his or her rights to the gift. So if the bride stood ready to proceed with the marriage and the groom broke it off, then he doesn't get the ring back. Under this rationale, the courts shouldn't aid a groom who has broken his promise of marriage to regain possession of something he would not have regained if he had kept his promise. (Because once the marriage takes place, the ring is hers!) To the contrary, the groom does get the ring back if the bride broke the engagement or if it was mutual. So far, so good, for my friend. Even though he could argue that she broke it off, he was the infidel. But now you can see why it's getting sticky... Maybe he could claim that she abandoned him with her relentless devotion to her work? Or that she was emotionally unavailable? Or that her mother was driving him mad with the wedding details. That's right, not easy for the courts...

Thus, the modern trend (now followed in Connecticut, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin) thinks that the whole matter of who broke up with whom isn't any of the law's business. Who really cares? If the wedding's off, they say, then the groom should get the ring back, regardless of who, why, where, or when the engagement ended.

This view argues that it is truly an insurmountable task to determine which party was at fault in an engagement's demise, as I noted briefly above. Trial courts, this approach maintains, are not positioned to sort through volumes of contradictory, acrimonious and self-serving testimony regarding who-did-what during the engagement. (Though they've done it for years and that is exactly the law's role - to determine and apply the facts of a case, no matter how messy ! ? !)

The more compelling argument in my eyes, is the analogy to no-fault based marital law. If no-fault divorce laws makes it possible for marriages to end and property be divided without bitter court fights over whose fault it was, why shouldn't broken engagements be treated the same way? Since a no-fault divorce is the modern approach to a broken marriage, a no-fault approach to a broken engagement seems equally appropriate.

And I would argue more so actually, because the primary purpose for the engagement period is to allow the couple to test their feelings for one another and be sure that he or she desires the commitment of marriage to the other. They haven't even yet committed to marriage! Given that, wouldn't it be irrational to punish the groom for taking steps to prevent a possibly unhappy marriage? And isn't public policy better served if the engagement promise is broken, rather than the marriage vows!

Yes, both parties should be free to be who they are and follow the engagement to one of two possible conclusions. Without penalty to the groom or unjust enrichment to the bride. (Uh huh, we're talking about money here -- for let's admit, after the engagement is broken, the ring is only a symbol of failed promises and hopes, hardly a treasured keepsake.) And this no-fault approach to family law matters, girlfriends, seems to be just where the states are headed. We're out of luck on this one! So...


Dear Friend:

Legally, you may keep the ring. You may keep it as a token of his infidelity, but only because you live in California! In 2007! He is unlikely to sue you and take on legal fees in what he will be told is an uphill battle. Of course, if he doesn't care about money (though why would he want the ring back then... it's not for sentimentality!) and has nothing better to do with his time (or heralds himself the self-appointed representative of all men out-of-pocket on a ring who've broken an engagement), he could sue you for the ring, advocating that the California court adopt the modern approach. But this is unlikely. Unless the ring is an heirloom...

More on all else (the heirloom, the other wedding expenses, the humiliation) at a later date as interest dictates!

Love (and the law),

Me

P.S. Send all love and the law inquiries to me (as comments to this blog) and I will address them as best and quickly as I can!

P.P.S. Kudos to J-Lo for having returned to Ben Affleck her 6 carat pink diamond engagement ring, reportedly worth $1.2 million after he was reported frequenting strip clubs. But perhaps she didn't want to publicly litigate the who, what and why of the breakup!

P.P.S. Same for Paris Hilton who wrote a check for $5 million to Paris Latsis when she broke off her engagement, the value of the 24 carat diamond engagement ring she had picked out herself!!!

And just in case you're curious, here is the...
Top 10 list of priciest celebrity engagement rings according to WeddingPaperDivas.com.

(And guess what? Only 2 of the 10 engagements were called off, and only 2 of the 8 couples that married have divorced! Which begs the question (at least perhaps with celebrities) ...
the flashier the ring, the more solid the marriage?)


Number 10: Jennifer Garner / Ben Affleck -- approximately $500,000

Number 9: Tony Parker / Eva Longoria -- estimated over $500,000

Number 8: Brooke Mueller / Charlie Sheen -- upwards of $550,000

Number 7: Camilla Parker / Prince Charles -- a million dollars! (She earned that one, in my opinion.)

Number 6: Jennifer Lopez / Ben Affleck (again!) -- over $1.2 million (The couple split just before the wedding and Affleck returned it to Harry Winston to resell.)

Number 5: Katie Holmes / Tom Cruise -- more than $1.5 million

Number 4: Catherine Zeta-Jones / Michael Douglass -- over $2 million

Number 3: Jacqueline Kennedy / Aristotle Onassis -- garnered $2.6 million at auction in 1996

Number 2: Melania Knauss / Donald Trump -- over $3 million

And Number 1: Paris Hilton / Paris Lastsis -- estimated at $5 million (The engagement, however, lasted only 5 months and after buying the ring from Latsis, Hilton supposedly later auctioned it off for charity.)


*****
Legal Disclaimer: This series provides accurate and current legal information regarding the subject matter discussed. But it is not a substitute for personalized advice from a knowledgeable local lawyer. For specific legal advice, there is no substitute for consultation with a practicing lawyer with thorough and up-to-date knowledge of the law in your state or locality and who is informed about all the relevant details of your situation. The author and publisher specifically disclaim any liability for loss incurred as a consequence of any material presented in the series.