The Engagement Ring: Whose Property?
In the Western marital tradition, a man typically requests the hand of his intended in marriage with the conditional gift of an engagement ring. When a woman accepts the proposal, she proudly wears the ring as a sign to all that she intends to wed the ring donor.
What happens, however, when the marriage does not occur? The legal significance of this issue often correlates to the value of the ring. Sadly, some of the doomed couples wind-up in court.
A decision last week from the Virginia Supreme Court reaffirmed the general rule that an engagement ring is a gift conditioned upon the nuptials of the parties. If the wedding is called-off, regardless of fault, the ring donor is entitled to the return of the ring; the donee has an obligation to return the property.
In the Virginia case, the donor broke-off the engagement after a year. The donee, sporting a two carat ring on her finger, worth over $25,000, balked at returning the ring to her fiance. When this lovers' quarrel was not amicably resolved in private, the couple lawyered-up, and the fur started to fly.
The case went all the way to the Virginia Supreme Court, which conducted a brief survey of the law of engagements and correlated property rights. Featuring a cite to a 1985 law review article from the University of Michigan Law School, the decision shines a light, for instructional purposes, on the old "promise to marry" suits from the late 19th Century.
Promise to marry suits enabled the spurned woman [or man] to file a claim for return of property, both given and expected, along with damages for the embarrassment and heartbreak attendant with a broken engagement. Such suits were fodder, as noted by the Virginia High Court, for tabloid exploitation and sensationalism, depending on the fame or infamy of the litigants.
These common law claims were replaced over the last Century with so-called "heartbalm" statutes providing for the return of property given that was conditioned on nuptials. The Virginia case is consistent with a published decision from the Michigan Court of Appeals, Meyer v Mitnick, that sprang from the Oakland County Circuit Court.
In the Oakland County case from 2001, the engagement ring donor, a well-to-do physician, requested that his intended execute a prenuptial agreement. She refused and the engagement eventually broke off. Like last week's case from Virginia, the physician donor was the one who broke-off the engagement and the woman donee refused to return the ring.
The Michigan Court of Appeals upheld former Oakland County Circuit Judge Fred Mester, holding that where the condition subsequent -the wedding- does not occur, an action for replevin could be brought for the return of the property.
Indeed, it seems only fair to us here at the Law Blogger that, if the nuptials never occur, property given in anticipation of that fact should be returned. That is a fair and reasonable result.
The cases highlighted in this post tell us that it matters not who calls off the wedding.