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Ownership of the engagement ring in divorce

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Please read the information regarding Engagement Ring below and explain or discuss: Where do you stand on this issue? Why?

Often, when a couple decides to marry, one party gives the other an engagement ring. If the engagement is called off, typically the ring is returned. Yet what if the recipient of the ring refuses to return it and a dispute over who owns the ring reaches a court? What law should apply in determining ownership rights in this particular form of personal property? In the eyes of the law, is an engagement ring a "conditional gift" that becomes effective only when the couple actually marries? Or is it an effective gift to begin with, meaning that it belongs to the person to whom it was given—the donee? Furthermore, does ownership of the ring depend on who breaks the engagement? On these questions, the courts are widely divided.

A number of courts have held that an engagement ring is a conditional gift with strings attached— the gift becomes absolute only on marriage. In a Michigan case, for example, Barry Meyer had given Robyn Mitnick an engagement ring that cost $19,500. When Barry later asked Robyn to sign a prenuptial agreement and she refused to do so, the wedding was called off. Robyn refused to return the ring, contending that it was an unconditional gift. Barry claimed that it was a conditional gift given in contemplation of marriage. The court held for Barry, ruling that the gift of an engagement ring is a conditional gift that becomes final only if the marriage occurs. The Michigan decision echoed earlier rulings by courts in several other jurisdictions. For example, in a Pennsylvania case a prospective husband gave his bride-to-be a diamond ring that he had purchased for $17,400. A few months later, the man broke the engagement and demanded that the ring is returned. The woman refused, and the case went to court. Ultimately, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court concluded that the ring belonged to the man because an engagement ring is a temporary gift that becomes absolute only when the marriage takes place. A few years earlier, the Kansas Supreme Court had reached a similar conclusion: an engagement ring, by its very nature, is a "conditional gift" given in contemplation of marriage. Courts in Ohio, New York, and New Mexico have held likewise.

When a court decides that an engagement ring is a conditional gift, the next question to be considered is whether ownership rights in the ring depend on who breaks the engagement. In ancient Rome, the rule was that a woman who called off the wedding had to return the ring and its value as a penalty, but a man who called off the wedding faced no penalty. Over the ages, this rule changed. Today, etiquette authorities routinely claim that if a woman breaks an engagement, she should return the ring; if the man breaks the engagement, the woman is entitled to keep the ring. But how do the courts approach this question? Again, there is a split in authority. Some jurisdictions follow a fault-based rule. That is, if an engagement has been unjustifiably broken by the donor, the donor cannot recover the ring. If, however, the engagement is broken by mutual agreement or unjustifiably by the donee, then the ring should be returned to the donor. Other jurisdictions follow a no-fault rule. In the Michigan case just discussed, for example, the court held that fault—which party broke the engagement—is not an issue. Because marriage is an implied condition of the ring, the gift does not become absolute until the marriage occurs. If the engagement is broken, the law requires that the ring is returned to the donor.

Other courts, when deciding engagement-ring cases, avoid the fault/no-fault issue by applying the law governing gifts. In these jurisdictions, an engagement ring, once delivered to and accepted by the donee, is an effective gift belonging to the donee. For example, in one case Michael Albinger had given Michelle Harris a $29,000 diamond engagement ring in contemplation of their marriage. When the couple decided not to go through with the marriage, Michelle claimed that the ring was hers to keep. Michael wanted it back. Ultimately, the Montana Supreme Court held for Michelle. The court stated that Montana law defined a gift as a " transfer of personal property made voluntarily and without consideration." The court was reluctant to carve out an exception in the state's gift law for engagement rings. Among other things, stated the court, to do so would reflect a gender bias favoring men. A dissenting judge was astonished by the majority's decision. The judge noted that women are more likely to be the subject of these actions simply because they are more likely to receive the rings. Does that mean, queried the judge, that "we [should] just prohibit gifts in anticipation of marriage altogether because men are more likely to have to pay for them?"

As noted, some courts hold that an engagement ring is a conditional gift that becomes an absolute (effective) gift only on marriage. Other courts conclude that when an engagement ring is given to the donee, the donee should have full ownership rights in the property.

Q: Where do you stand on this issue? Why?

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The following posting discusses the issue of who own the engagement ring when a couple gets divorced.

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