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WITH THIS RING: POSSESSION OF ENGAGEMENT AND WEDDING RINGS UPON TERMINATION OF THE RELATIONSHIP
1994 National Legal Research Group, Inc.

I. INTRODUCTION

Engagement and wedding rings are one of the most popular traditions surrounding the institution of marriage. Traditionally, to formalize an engagement, a man gives his fiancee a ring as a token of his devotion. Upon marriage, both spouses exchange rings to show that they are binding themselves to one another as husband and wife.

Unfortunately, these promises to love one another forever do not always last as long as the rings which symbolize them. When an engagement or marriage fails, therefore, the ownership of the engagement and wedding rings often becomes an issue. Because the rings have a great deal of both sentimental and monetary value, that issue tends to be very intensely litigated.

This article will explore the body of law that has emerged regar ding entitlement to engagement and wedding rings upon a broken engagement or failed marriage. First, we will look at the rules that have emerged regarding entitlement to an engagement ring upon a broken engagement. Then, we will look at the major rule that has developed regarding rings given in contemplation of marriage; in more formal terms, which party is entitled to the rings upon a distribution of property following a dissolution. Finally, we will offer a practice pointer that might help a client assert entitlement to a ring.

II. BROKEN ENGAGEMENT

A survey of the case law addressing entitlement to an engagement ring following a decision not to marry reveals two major rules. One is the majority rule, wherein fault determines entitlement to a ring. The other is a minority rule, wherein fault is not considered. Rather, the giving of the ring is viewed as bestowing upon the donee a conditional gift. The condition is marriage. When that condition fails, the donor is entitled to a return of the ring. While this rule is often described as a minority position, it appears to be emerging as the trend when the ownership of rings is litigated.

The majority rule was stated by the court in In re Estate of Lowe, 146 Mich. App. 325, 379 N.W.2d 485, 486 (1985), as follows:

(Citations omitted.) See generally Annotation, Rights in Respect of Engagement and Courtship Presents When Marriage Does Not Ensue, 46 A.L.R.3d 578 (1972 & Supp. 1993).

This rule was applied in Wion v. Henderson, 24 Ohio App. 3d 207, 494 N.E.2d 133 (1985). There, the plaintiff/donor broke his engagement with the defendant/donee to marry his present wife. The plaintiff sued for return of the ring. He was denied relief. The court noted that the plaintiff was at fault; the defendant was not. The court, following the position of another Ohio court in Coconis v. Christakis, 70 Ohio Misc. 29, 435 N.E.2d 100 (County Ct. 1981), held that absent an agreement to the contrary, an engagement ring need not be returned to the donor when the engagement is unjustifiably broken by the donor.

The Florida court in Gill v. Shively, 320 So. 2d 415 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1975), similarly followed this rule but given different factual circumstances. On April 19, 1974, the appellant/donor gave the appellee/donee a diamond engagement ring worth $3,620. Two weeks later, the appellee said she did not feel she was ready for marriage. The appellant brought a replevin action for return of the ring. His complaint was dismissed. The court of appeal reve rsed. It held that the ring was not an absolute gift but was conditioned on the consummation of the marriage. The condition failed. Thus, appellant had a valid cause of action.

Other courts, in contrast, have held that fault is not relevant to the ownership of engagement rings. The basis behind these opinions has often been the same policies which led to the adoption of no-fault divorce statutes. In Aronow v. Silver, 223 N.J. Super. 344, 538 A.2d 851 (Ch. Div. 1987), the defendant/donee canceled the engagement three times. When it was obvious that the marriage would not take place, the plaintiff/donor sought return of the ring. The court allowed him recovery. It rejected the majority rule, declaring it to be sexist and archaic. The court wrote:

538 A.2d at 853-54. The plaintiff's gift was conditioned on the marriage taking place. It did not matter why the marriage did not take place; the main point was that the condition was unfulfilled. Thus, the ring should be returned to the plaintiff.

A New York court adopted this rule as well in Friedman v. Geller, 82 Misc. 2d 291, 368 N.Y.S.2d 980 (Civ. Ct. 1975). The plaintif f/donor and defendant/donee were engaged to be married. Their romance dissipated, and the defendant refused to return the ring. She alleged the ring was an unconditional gift, given as an ex pression of love and affection. The plaintiff, in contrast, argued that the ring was given in contemplation of marriage and was recoverable since the marriage did not materialize. The court held for the plaintiff. It commented:

368 N.Y.S.2d at 982. The court held that a donee must have clear and convincing proof to rebut the presumption that gifts made during the engagement period are given solely in consideration of marriage. The plaintiff in Friedman was entitled to summary judgment for return of the ring.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court adopted the minority position in Brown v. Thomas, 127 Wis. 2d 318, 379 N.W.2d 868 (1985). The parties were engaged in September 1983, at which time the plaintiff gave the defendant a ring. In December 1983, the engagement was broken and the plaintiff sued for return of the ring. Each party accused the other of breaking the engagement. The trial court granted the defendant a motion on the verdict. The supreme court reversed. It held that the condition that a marriage will ensue is implied in fact or imposed by law to prevent unjust enrichment. When the condition fails, the ring must be returned. The court rejected the contention that recovery was barred by the statutory abolition of the action for breach of a contract to marry. Nevertheless, it rejected the plaintiff's contention that he was entitled to interest and damages. See also Lyle v. Durham, 16 Ohio App. 3d 1, 473 N.E.2d 1216 (1984) (where plaintiff/donor brought a conversion action against defendant/donee for the value of an engagement ring and wedding band he purchased for defendant, who had traded the rings in to buy an engagement ring and wedding band with a subsequent fiance, plaintiff entitled to judgment unless there was an agreement between the parties that the rings need not be returned; it was no matter that the plaintiff broke the engagement).

The minority rule, that the gift of an engagement ring is a conditional gift and recoverable where the condition fails, seems to be emerging as the majority rule. Recent cases uniformly have been adopting this rule. For example, in Glass v. Wiltz, 551 So. 2d 32 (La. Ct. App. 1989), the plaintiff/donor sought recovery of a 14-carat yellow gold diamond ring, with an appraised value of $29,000, after he broke the engagement. The defendant/donee was ordered to return the ring. She then filed a reconventional suit for $29,000 damages for the loss of the ring plus $25,000 damages for pain and suffering. The court refused her relief. It held that the condition failed, so the plaintiff was entitled to return of the ring. Moreover, the defendant failed to prove damages entitling her to any monetary award.

In Spinnell v. Quigley, 56 Wash. App. 799, 785 P.2d 1149 (1990), the appellant gave the defendant a two-carat diamond ring upon their engagement in October 1982. When the engagement was broken, the appellant took the ring back. The respondent filed an action to recover the ring. The trial court allowed the appellant to keep the ring, but it ordered him to pay the respondent $7,500 for uncompensated services. The appellate court modified the order. It held that appellant was entitled to the ring because he made the gift upon the implied condition that if there was no marriage, the ring would be returned. It also ordered the respondent to repay the appellant $7,500.

The New York appellate court, in Gagliardo v. Clemente, 180 A.D.2d 551, 580 N.Y.S.2d 279 (1992), affirmed a partial summary judgment granted to the plaintiff/donor by the trial court in so much as the plaintiff sought return of a 3.77-carat white diamond ring he gave the defendant in contemplation of marriage. The court held that it was no matter that plaintiff might be at fault for breaking the engagement; the ring was given in contemplation of marriage, and the marriage did not occur. See also Glachman v. Perlen, 159 A.D.2d 533, 552 N.Y.S.2d 419 (1990); McIntire v. Raukhorst, 65 Ohio App. 3d 728, 585 N.E.2d 456 (1989).

These cases of broken engagement must be distinguished from those cases where the engagement was not broken but, rather, did not materialize due to events beyond the parties' control. In those cases, generally the donee, more typically the donee's represen tative, is entitled to keep the ring. The most frequent example of this type of case is where one of the parties dies during the pendency of the engagement period.

In Hahn v. United States, 535 F. Supp. 132 (D.S.D. 1982), the donee and her fiance were engaged some time prior to 1975. On October 17, 1975, the donee was killed while a passenger in a private plane piloted by her fiance when he struck an electrical wire. The fiance removed the ring from the donee's finger following the crash. The administratrix of the donee's estate filed a conversion action against the fiance and an action against the federal government under the Federal Tort Claims Recovery Act. The latter complaint was rejected. The court, however, did find the fiance negligent for failing to maintain a proper altitude and for failure to familiarize himself with aeronautical charts, though it found no evidence of willful and wanton misconduct. The fiance contended he was entitled to the ring because it was a conditional gift, given in contemplation of the marriage. The court rejected his defense. It found that the marriage was prevented by the fiance's negligence and thus he was responsible for breaking the engagement. Adopting the fault theory, the court found that the donee's estate was entitled to the ring or its value. See also In re Estate of Lowe, 146 Mich. App. 325, 379 N.W.2d 485 (1985) (where parties were engaged in 1974 but marriage was prevented by donor's unemployment and the failing health of the donee, which resulted in her death, the donee's estate was entitled to the ring; the court held that the engagement was terminated due to the inability of the condition of marriage to be fulfilled; the donee's possession of the ring at the time of her death rendered her rights to it superior to those of all others).

In the cases of entitlement to a ring in the case of a broken engagement, two schools of thought have emerged. One is that the party who is at fault should be denied the ring, whether this be the donor or the donee, unless there was an agreement that the ring would be returned upon termination of the engagement, no matter who called it off. The other school, which appears to be emerging as the trend, is that fault does not matter; the gift of an engagement ring is a conditional gift and, where the condition fails, the ring should be returned to the donor. As will be seen in Part III, this latter rule is the majority rule in the case of a dissolved marriage; only there is a twist. The condition has been fulfilled, and thus the donee is usually entitled to the ring.

III. FAILED MARRIAGE

The cases involving the distribution of a ring given in contemplation of marriage upon dissolution of a marriage have uniformly adopted the conditional gift theory. These cases apply contract principles. Such application almost always ends with the donee being awarded the ring.

The cases often cite the three essential elements of an inter vivos gift: (1) a present intention on the part of the donor to make a gift to the donee; (2) the delivery of the property by the donor to the donee; and (3) the acceptance of the property by the donee. Upon acceptance, the donee's right to ownership becomes absolute in form. The courts further explain that there is a condition subsequent attached to the gift. In Lipton v. Lipton, 134 Misc. 2d 1076, 514 N.Y.S.2d 158, 159 (Sup. Ct. 1986), the court said:

Once the ring is given, it has become the separate property of the donee. Once the marriage is consummated, the donee has fulfilled the condition that entitles her to claim the ring as her separate property. She is entitled to the ring upon the dissolution of the marriage.

In Winer v. Winer, 241 N.J. Super. 510, 575 A.2d 518 (App. Div. 1990), the husband proposed marriage to the wife in October 1980. At that time, he presented her with an engagement ring left to him by his deceased mother. The parties were married in April 1981. Because the ring was so valuable, it was kept in a safe deposit box during the marriage and only worn on special occasions.

Upon dissolution, the chancellor awarded the wife the ring. He determined that the ring was a conditional gift. Since the condition, marriage, had occurred, the ring was the wife's separate property. He rejected the husband's argument that since the gift did not become effective until marriage, it was marital property and thus subject to distribution. On appeal, the lower court's decision was affirmed.

The court in Lipton v. Lipton, 134 Misc. 2d 1076, 514 N.Y.S.2d 158 (Sup. Ct. 1986), similarly rejected a husband's argument that the ring was marital property. In that case, too, the husband contended that the gift did not vest until the marriage, and thus was marital property. The court rejected his argument that because the gift might be defeated, it was not absolute when given. Rather, that the condition might fail and the gift be defeated was no matter. The ring was held to be the wife's separate property, not subject to equitable distribution.

A Missouri appellate court rejected a husband's argument that the condition failed where the parties were married only a short duration and that he thus should be entitled to the ring. In Smith v. Smith, 797 S.W.2d 879 (Mo. Ct. App. 1990), the husband gave the wife an engagement ring in May 1988. He had charged the ring, costing $1,800, on a credit card. The parties were married on September 12, 1988. They separated on January 1, 1989. Upon divorce, the court divided the marital property and awarded each party his or her nonmarital property. The court awarded the wife the engagement ring as her nonmarital property. The husband appealed. He contended that the wife had failed to fulfill the condition entitling her to keep it. He argued that, given the expense of the ring, the condition was that the marriage be of significant duration. He further argued that the condition of marriage included more than the formal marriage ceremony. The appeals court rejected his argument. It held that the ring unconditionally became the wife's property upon the marriage. There was no evidence that it was given on the condition that the marriage last a certain length of time. Not only did the court hold that the ring was the wife's separate property, but that the $1,800 debt was the husband's sole responsibility, having been incurred before the marriage.

Recently, two South Carolina decisions have applied the conditional gift theory, awarding the ring to the wife upon dissolution of the marriage. In both cases, the courts did so where there were disagreements as to facts. In each case, the court found the wife's testimony more credible.

In Frank v. Frank, ___ S.C. ___, 429 S.E.2d 823 (Ct. App. 1993), the husband gave the wife an engagement ring in 1981. It had belonged to his father and his grandfather. The husband argued at trial that he and his wife had the understanding that "if anything happened," he would get the ring back. The wife denied such an understanding. The court determined the wife to be the more credible witness and cited the general rule that an antenuptial gift of an engagement ring is the recipient's separate property. The appellate court affirmed.

In McLerin v. McLerin, ___ S.C. ___, 425 S.E.2d 476 (Ct. App. 1992), the parties were married in August 1980. They separated in 1988. Upon dissolution the court awarded a wedding ring to the wife, finding it to be her nonmarital property. The husband had contended that the wife did not receive the ring prior to the marriage and thus that it was marital property. The wife contended that she had been given the ring six months before the marriage. The trial judge here again found the wife's testimony more credible, determining the ring to be an antenuptial gift. And again, on appeal, the lower court's findings were upheld. See alsoBenkin v. Benkin, 71 Md. App. 191, 524 A.2d 789 (1987) (on wife's appeal, court reverses lower court judgment awarding engagement ring, worth $3,000, to husband; the wife had been given a considerable amount of jewelry during the marriage, much of it purchased at the jewelry store owned by the husband's father, al though the husband did concede that the ring was given to the wife before their marriage); Hanover v. Hanover, 775 S.W.2d 612 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1989) (where husband challenged valuation of engagement ring, awarded to wife upon dissolution, court held that any error in valuation would be of no importance because the ring was the wife's separate property and its value did not impact on an equi table distribution of marital property).

Where a wedding ring was given to the wife during the marriage, courts have come to differing conclusions. The Montana Supreme Court apparently rejected the idea that the ring was marital prop erty just because it was not given to the wife until after the consummation of the marriage. An Illinois appellate court reached an opposite conclusion but nevertheless awarded the ring to the wife.

In In re Marriage of Kecskes, 210 Mont. 479, 683 P.2d 478 (1984), the parties were married in 1959, while the husband was in the military. Due to limited finances, the husband could not afford to give the wife a ring at that time. Instead, he sent her a $4,700 diamond ring from Vietnam in 1965. After a 23-year marriage, the parties were divorced. The court divided the marital property, determining that each party was entitled to 50%. The court addi tionally awarded the wife the ring as her separate property. The Montana Supreme Court affirmed.

In In re Marriage of Lee, 246 Ill. App. 3d 628, 615 N.E.2d 1314 (1993), the parties were married in December 1973. The husband was an ophthalmologist, the wife a commercial artist. During the marriage, the wife gave her husband most of her earnings, which were considerably less than his. During the marriage, the husband gave the wife many lavish gifts. One of these was a $20,000 replacement wedding ring. The trial court, upon dissolution, determined that the husband had dissipated marital assets and had greater earning potential. Consequently, it awarded the wife a greater share of the marital assets. The husband appealed. One of his arguments on appeal was that the $20,000 replacement wedding ring should be awarded to him. He contended that it was a conditional gift, given to the wife on the contention that she could keep it as long as she remained married to him. The court rejected his argument. It noted that the ring was purchased with marital funds and thus was marital property. It explained that an interspousal gift occurs when a donor spouse makes a gift of his interest in marital property to the donee spouse; then the donee spouse is in possession of both her interest and the donor spouse's interest, and the property is her separate property. If the gift is a conditional gift, however, and the condition fails to occur, the property would remain marital property. Here, the condition did not occur, and thus the ring remained marital property. The appeals court held, however, that it would be proper to award the wife the ring as a part of her share of the parties' marital property.

Note that the order of the appeals court in Lee has been recalled pending disposition of a petition for leave to appeal. The order of the appeals court, however, attempts to resolve numerous issues, and it is unclear from the reported decision whether the marital ring issue will be appealed. Lee v. Lee, ___ Ill. 2d ___, 623 N.E.2d 1361 (1993).

Of course, in all property states, even if a ring, engagement or wedding, is the separate property of the donee, it still could be awarded to the donor upon an equitable distribution of the parties' property, since both marital and separate property is subject to distribution in all property states. Nevertheless, the ring is usually awarded to the wife. See, e.g., Murano v. Murano, 122 N.H. 223, 442 A.2d 597 (1987) (where the only two major assets of the parties were a parcel of real estate and an engagement ring, it was proper for the court to divide the real estate 50/50 and to award the ring to the wife); In re Marriage of Kecskes, 210 Mont. 479, 683 P.2d 478 (1984) (no error to divide parties' assets 50/50 and to also award wife wedding ring given to wife during the marriage).

These cases illustrate the general principle that courts view a ring given in contemplation of marriage as a conditional gift, the gift absolute from the time of the giving and the condition ful filled upon the parties' marriage. The donee spouse received the ring prior to the marriage, and thus upon dissolution she is entitled to the ring as her separate property. Where a ring is given during the marriage, the courts have reached differing results about the classification of the ring. Nevertheless, in those cases, too, the courts have generally awarded the ring to the donee spouse. Even in all property states, where the court could award the ring to either party, the courts generally award the ring to the donee, even if the courts have divided the remaining assets equally.

IV. PRACTICE POINTER

As illustrated, where a donor spouse has given the donee spouse a ring in contemplation of marriage, and the condition of marriage has been fulfilled, the courts have concluded that the ring is the separate property of the donee spouse and have awarded the ring to that spouse. Therefore, practicing family law attorneys have an uphill battle when arguing that the donor should be entitled to the ring. One possible argument is available in a case where the ring is a family heirloom. In such a case, the court might be moved by principles of equity to award the ring to the donor who can show sentimental value attached to the ring.

Indeed, courts are sensitive to considering the sentimental value of property when making a property distribution. The Iowa appellate court offered some general principles in In re Marriage of Wallace, 315 N.W.2d 827, 832 (Iowa Ct. App. 1981):

These principles were applied in Duncan v. Duncan, 686 S.W.2d 568 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1984). There, upon divorce, the court awarded the husband some items of personal property that the wife contended should have been awarded to her. This included two rings worn by the wife's father, one a wedding ring and the other a diamond ring. These were inherited by the wife's mother upon the father's death, and she permitted the wife to give them to the husband. In view of the sentimental value attached to the rings, the appeals court ordered that they be returned to the wife.

In Uluhogian v. Uluhogian, 86 Ill. App. 3d 654, 408 N.E.2d 107 (1980), the husband appealed an award to the wife of a gold cross given to him by his uncle, an archbishop, prior to the parties' marriage. The wife wore the cross, but the husband denied gifting it to her. Holding that there was insufficient evidence of an intent to gift the cross to the wife, the appeals court reversed the lower court's order. See also Prenatt v. Stevens, 598 N.E.2d 616 (Ind. Ct. App. 1992) (error to award to wife husband's personal effects, including a university diploma, ancestral photographs, books, military memorabilia, and a photo collection); Williams v. Williams, 619 So. 2d 972 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1993) (error to award wife a piano that had been in the husband's family for over 40 years, no matter that the father-in-law purportedly told the wife he wanted her to have it; there was no evidence of a gift made during the father-in-law's lifetime, and upon father-in-law's death it was distributed through his estate solely to the husband); In re Marriage of Anderson, 94 Or. App. 774, 766 P.2d 1057 (1989) (error to award to husband a piano and clawfoot stool given to the wife at the age of nine by her grandmother). Nevertheless, where the heirloom is an engagement or wedding ring, the courts still are inclined to award the ring to the donee spouse. See Winer v. Winer, 241 N.J. Super. 510, 575 A.2d 518 (App. Div. 1990) (upon dissolution of marriage, no error to award to wife an engagement ring left to the husband by his deceased mother); Frank v. Frank, ___ S.C. ___, 429 S.E.2d 823 (Ct. App. 1993) (upon dissolution of marriage, no error to award engagement ring given to the wife even though the ring belonged to the husband's father and grandfather).

To the extent that a practitioner representing a donor spouse can show a special sentimental value attached to an engagement or wedding ring, such as that the ring is a family heirloom, the donor spouse at least has an argument to challenge the propriety of awarding the ring to the donee. Nevertheless, the courts, in view of legal principles taking precedence over equitable principles, still are likely to award the donee spouse an engagement or wedding ring where the elements of gifting have been fulfilled.

V. CONCLUSION

The purchase of a ring bought in contemplation of marriage represents a major expenditure. Upon a broken engagement or failed marriage, the tendency of the courts has been to apply contractual principles. The courts view the giving of a ring in contemplation of marriage as a conditional gift. If the marriage takes place, the condition has been fulfilled, and the ring is the property of the donee spouse. Thus, upon a divorce, courts generally award such a ring to the donee spouse as her separate property. On the other hand, if the marriage does not take place, the condition has not been fulfilled, and the donor is usually entitled to a return of the ring. Thus, upon a broken engagement, the donor spouse usually is entitled to recover the ring.

Some courts, however, will not permit recovery if there was an agreement between the parties that the donee could keep the ring even if the marriage was canceled or if the donor is unjustifiably at fault. Given the considerable expense and given the authority, one would think that parties contemplating marriage would think long and hard before taking the major step of purchasing a ring, let alone the major step of entering the marriage. The reality, however, is that some promises are impossible to keep, and sometimes marriages do fail. Little comfort that might be to the jilted lover, who loses not only romance but also a valuable ring. And little comfort that might be to a donor spouse who has spent thousands of dollars on a ring, only to have no entitlement to it.

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