If the luck of the Irish holds, your engagement diamond may be yours forever. Diamonds, given to you after someone asks the question: “will you marry me?” with a “yes” to follow, are a contract. This is why so many of them end up in court property division cases.
The Engagement Ring Tradition
Until the 1930s, a woman jilted by her fiancé could sue for financial compensation for “damage” to her reputation under what was known as the “Breach of Promise to Marry” action.
As courts began to abolish such actions, diamond ring sales rose in response to a need for a symbol of financial commitment from the groom.
I’ve written about engagement rings before. Florida abolished the appropriately termed “heart balm statutes”. Heart balm statutes were laws allowing couples to sue each other to recover money for the alienation of affections and breaches of contract to marry.
As one court poetically noted:
[A] gift given by a man to a woman on condition that she embark on the sea of matrimony with him is no different from a gift based on the condition that the donee sail on any other sea. If, after receiving the provisional gift, the donee refuses to leave the harbor – if the anchor of contractual performance sticks in the sands of irresolution and procrastination – the gift must be restored to the donor. A fortiori would this be true when the donee not only refuses to sail with the donor, but, on the contrary, walks up the gangplank of another ship arm in arm with the donor’s rival?
Engagement Rings in Court
After an engagement ring is given, and if the couple doesn’t marry, in New York the law deems a broken engagement as no one’s fault. Accordingly, the ring should be given back to the giver, with few exceptions. Most states have adopted that approach.
This is true in Florida. Lawsuits to recover an engagement ring by disappointed donors usually are resolved by courts looking to see if the engagement was terminated by the donee or by mutual consent of the parties.
The rationale is that rings are given on the implied condition that a marriage ensue.
Once a marriage proposal is extended and accepted — once the promise is made — no matter what day of the year, that ring is no longer considered a gift. It’s a contract to enter into marriage.
Most states embraced the no-fault rule after the 1997 case of Heiman v. Parrish. There, the Kansas Supreme Court decided that no matter who broke the engagement, the ring should be given back to the giver if the parties don’t marry.
“Ordinarily, the ring should be returned to the donor, regardless of fault,” the court found.
But Montana hasn’t followed the rule. Montana classifies the ring as an unconditional gift. The recipient keeps it. California and Texas take a middle-of-the road approach: the recipient of the ring is expected to return it, unless the giver called off the engagement.
The general rule in Florida is that an engagement ring given before the marriage, becomes a non-marital gift if the marriage is completed. If so, the ring becomes the non-marital property of the Wife.
If the engagement ring is viewed by the court as a non-marital asset, it is not subject to equitable distribution in divorce proceedings, and the spouse keeps it as their own.
The New York Times article is here.