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Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2001

A fiance breaks off an engagement. Can he get the ring back?

This question is a perennial favorite for lawyers, and the answer is less simple than you might think. Indeed, just last month, a New York court decided a case, Marshall v. Cassano, that raises some new and interesting questions about the proper legal characterization of an engagement ring, and the appropriate rules governing its ownership.

The Marshall Case

In that case, John Marshall — while still married — gave another woman, Dolores Cassano, an $8,000 engagement ring. Dolores, in turn, promised to marry John when and if he became free to marry her. John did eventually get divorced, but shortly afterwards, he broke off his engagement to Dolores.

John and Dolores' breakup was messy. She sought and obtained an Order of Protection to prevent him from coming near her. He filed suit to recover the clothes and furnishings he had left at her house, as well as the engagement ring.

John ultimately got his clothes and furnishings back, but not his engagement ring. Why not? The answer lies in the sometimes complicated law of engagement rings.

A Contract Theory of Engagement Rings?

First of all, how should we characterize the act of giving an engagement ring? How we see this act will be crucial in determining when the ring should, and should not, have to be returned.

One could see the ring as "consideration" — a thing of value given in exchange to create a contract. But that raises a question: What, exactly, is the fiancee who accepts the ring giving in exchange?

One could say she is agreeing to an option contract. That is, with the ring, the fiance buys the right to marry his fiancee in the future. She, in turn, promises to marry him.

Characterizing the ring exchange as an option contract on the right to marry in the future suggests that the jilted bride should not have to give back the ring. After all, the ring-giver got what he paid for — the option to marry a particular woman. He just chose not to exercise that option. And she made good on her promise to marry by remaining open to the possibility (i.e. not running off and marrying someone else in the interim); she was not the one who broke off the engagement.

On the other hand, if the fiancee dumps the ring-giver, then on this theory, the jilted groom should get his ring back (or get damages, pursuant to the parties' contract). He never got to exercise his option, and she broke her promise to marry him.

The Engagement Ring As Symbol of Transfer?

An alternative to the contract theory can be drawn from more dated (and sexist) theories of marriage. These theories might suggest that the ring is symbolic of "title" to the bride — a legal right in her, as if she were property — being transferred from her father to her future husband.

A clump of earth and a twig was once used to symbolize the delivery of a parcel of land. Similarly, the giving of the ring could be seen as symbolic of the transfer of power and possession over a woman.

That theory, offensive though it is, would imply a ring need never be given back — and would, in that limited sense at least, ironically favor women's interests. Transfers of symbolic tokens generally do not need to be returned, even if the underlying deal falls through.

Engagement Ring as Conditional Gift

Neither the contract nor the symbolic token theory, however, has carried the day. Rather, the law governing the tradition of engagement rings is the law of gifts. That leads to a further question, however: Should an engagement ring be seen as an unconditional, or a conditional gift?

The Restatement of Restitution, a treatise on the rules that should govern payment for goods or services, advocates the unconditional gift approach. The Restatement sees the ring as simply a gift given with the hope that marriage will follow. That means that if even if the marriage does not take place, the gift stands — no matter who calls the marriage off.

Under this approach, only proof that the ring–and perhaps the engagement, too–was procured through fraud can make the jilting fiancee give the ring back. In practical terms, that means a fiance will only get his ring back if his fiancee breaks off the engagement and has, for example, written her mother a letter saying "I don't even intend to marry this guy, but the ring he inherited is worth a million and I intend to get it."

No-Fault Engagement?

Courts, by and large, have not adopted the unconditional gift approach, however. They have opted for the conditional gift approach instead.

This approach means the gift of the ring "vests" with the would-be bride only when the condition — the marriage — occurs. Conversely, when the condition fails and the marriage doesn't happen, for whatever reason, the gift never "vests."

Courts that take the conditional gift approach have, in turn, taken three different approaches to fashioning a rule about ring return: no-fault, modified fault, and fault.

Under a strict no-fault rule, the ring-giver is entitled to return of the ring–or its equivalent value–if the marriage never materializes. No questions asked.

This is a simple, bright-line rule. But it has been criticized for making the decision to propose marriage–which might induce the fiancee into a more intimate relationship–costless to the fiance. The result, critics say, is that the would-be bride may be hurt, while her fiance may become engaged carelessly, without a sufficiently thoughtful commitment.

There is also some imbalance in a law that gives the ring-giver his ring back, but does nothing to compensate the putative bride or her family, who traditionally pay for weddings, for unrecoverable outlays to caterers, florists, dress designers, and the like.

No-fault is the wave of the future. Most recent cases have advocated or adopted a no-fault principle. But a majority of courts still follow one of the other approaches: modified fault, or strict fault.

The Modified and Strict Fault Rules for Engagement Rings

Pursuant to a modified fault rule, the fiance is entitled to return of the ring

unless he is the one who called off the engagement–justifiably or not.

This approach, too, holds appeal in that it erects a relatively bright line rule. But equating the decision to call off the wedding with "fault" is, at best, superficial. And at worst, it induces the parties into an endless game of chicken, where each, having lost interest in marriage, is compelled to behave worse and worse until the other party cannot stand it anymore and calls it quits.

The third possible rule is a strict fault rule, under which the giver is entitled to return of the ring unless he was at fault for the broken engagement. But in this scheme, a determination of fault requires a more nuanced analysis, which examines not only who called off the engagement, but also whether that person was justified in doing so.

Of course, that inquiry inevitably enmeshes court in the complicated business of pinpointing the cause of a failed relationship. And who is to say when a broken engagement is justifiable?

Must such an action be based on something that makes the prospect of marriage unimaginable–like finding out one's fiancée is pregnant with another man's child? Or can it be simply something that makes marriage seem less desirable, like learning that one's fiancée is a slob, or discovering that the parties don't like to eat the same thing for dinner?

The difficulty of drawing these arbitrary lines is what has pushed most courts in the last five years toward a no-fault approach — in a trend somewhat similar to the trend that prompted no-fault divorce.

The Case of the Man Engaged Before He Was Divorced

In Marshall v. Cassano, the New York court took the majority approach as to how to characterize the engagement ring, deeming it a conditional gift. It also noted that New York generally follows a strict no-fault approach in deciding whether a ring must be returned.

One might initially guess that this would mean the giver — in this case, Joe Marshall, the plaintiff — would always win. But in this case, that guess would be wrong.

A New York statute governs the return of engagement rings. Under that statute, judges have discretion to order return of any gift made in contemplation of marriage, in the event the marriage never takes place. (Prior to the enactment of this statute, litigants in New York were not permitted to sue for the return of engagement rings.)

The purpose of New York's modern rule, the Court noted, is to return the parties to the status quo–the position they were in before becoming engaged–Dolores, without an $8,000 ring; Joe, with either the ring or $8,000 in his pocket.

But in Joe and Dolores' case, there was a twist: the rules governing the return of the ring once the condition of marriage failed did not straightforwardly apply. The court reasoned that because Joe was not free to marry at the time he extracted Dolores' promise to marry him, the ring he gave her could not have been given in consideration of marriage.

Instead, according to the court, the ring was simply a gift. And gifts cannot legally be taken back. (A court applying the modified fault approach would have reached the same result since it was Marshall who broke off the engagement; a court applying the unconditional gift approach would also have reached the same result.)

Rings as Symbolic Possession of Women

It may be surprising to some that ex-fiances actually sue one another over engagement rings. But disappointment and hurt feelings often propel people into vengeful acts. To a jilted would-be bride, keeping the ring may be a small satisfaction. To a would-be groom who has been jilted, losing the ring, as well as the bride, may seem to add insult to injury.

Perhaps instead of worrying so much about the law governing ring return, we should worry more about playing into a tradition that evokes an image of men's ownership of their wives. There is another, more equitable option: if fiances both exchange gifts upon engagement, rather than the man giving the woman a ring, then everyone will have something to keep, and something to lose, if things do not work out.

Joanna L. Grossman, a FindLaw columnist, is an associate professor of law at Hofstra Law School. Her other columns on family law-related issues, including an article on name changes and marriage, can be found in the archive of her columns on this site. She and her husband exchanged gifts when they became engaged.

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