On March 31, 2014, in Buffalo, New York State Supreme Court Justice, Russell P. Buscaglia ruled that Christa Mary Clark could keep her engagement ring after her fiancé Louis J. Billittier, Jr. called off the wedding via text message.
The court held that the ring was a gift based on a pair of break-up texts:
- “Plus you get a $50,000 parting ring. Enough for a down payment on a house;” and later
- “Keep it up, and I will take back the ring as well.”
In New York, the person proposing and giving an engagement ring typically has the right to get it back regardless of who calls off the engagement. But in unique circumstances such as this, who keeps the engagement ring?
The run-of-the-mill jilting
A typical marriage proposal has three elements of a legally binding contract: offer, acceptance and consideration.
- Offer: “Will you marry me?”
- Consideration: The engagement ring.
- Acceptance: “Yes, I will marry you!”
When the game plan changes and the “contract” to get married isn’t performed, New York courts typically order that the ring be returned. Justice Buscaglia explained this in his decision:
Most of the reported decisions on this issue in New York and nationwide recognize the unique essence and purpose of an engagement ring as being given in contemplation of marriage . . . . Therefore, fairness requires its return to the donor when no marriage occurs regardless of who is responsible for such failure.
New York, among other states, has a No-Fault Rule. Essentially, whoever gave the ring gets it back, no matter who initiates the breakup. The reasoning behind the adoption of this no-fault rule is similar to that for adopting no-fault divorce—it’s often time-consuming and difficult for courts to determine who is at fault.
Wedding rings are typically considered gifts that are conditioned upon the marriage actually coming to fruition. “This is true unless the once conditional gift is transformed into an ordinary gift,” Justice Buscaglia explained. He noted that an ordinary gift is “by definition irrevocable.”
Exceptions to the rule—It’s all about intent
There are some exceptions to the no-fault rule where the conditional gift of an engagement ring might be transformed into an unconditional (and irrevocable) gift. It all comes down to whether there is an intent to give an ordinary gift – in other words, a gift that is not contingent on whether a marriage occurs.
For instance, as Justice Buscaglia notes in his decision, if someone who is already married proposes to another person, the ring is considered a simple gift “since bigamy is illegal in New York.” Rings given on a holiday like Christmas, a gift-giving occasion such as Valentine’s Day or a birthday, may be considered an ordinary, unconditional gift—one which does not have to be returned.
In this case, the Judge Buscaglia determined that because the text messages from Billittier treated the ring as a gift, he must have intended it as such, and Clark was entitled to keep it. “His changing his mind is giver’s remorse rather than indignation based on his enforcement of his rights under [New York law]. Many gifts are given for reasons that sour with the passage of time.”
States differ in deciding who gets to keep the ring in the case of a broken engagement. Like New York, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court adopted a no-fault rule in 1999 and decided the giver should always get the ring back. Some states, like California and Texas, use a modified fault rule and consider external factors, such as who calls off the engagement. These states require the person receiving the ring to return it, unless the giver of the ring calls off the engagement. However, ex-fiancés in Montana are out of luck if they want to get their engagement rings back. In 2002, the Supreme Court of Montana ruled an “engagement ring to be a gift given without implied or express condition.” In other words, in Montana an engagement ring is always given permanently—there a diamond really is forever.
Not every broken engagement leads to a bitter battle or court case. Cultural norms and etiquette often determine whether a jilted fiancée returns the ring. Under such standards, if the bride-to-be calls off the wedding, she generally returns the ring. Although etiquette may influence the parties’ actions, law always trumps etiquette.
Although a suitor with eyes on marriage probably isn’t thinking of worst-case scenarios, proposers should be aware of the legal consequences that might pop up after popping the question.
Should the courts get involved in determining who’s at fault and award engagement rings accordingly? Or is the New York no-fault rule preferable?
Senior Law Clerk