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Who Keeps the Engagement Ring in Kentucky?

Posted by attorney Stacy Hoehle

With Valentine's Day less than a week away, there are quite a few men buying engagement rings for their sweethearts. However, the unfortunate reality is that not all of these engagements will materialize into marriages, and not all those marriages will last forever. This begs the question...who keeps the engagement ring when the relationships don't work out?

First of all, it is important to recognize that breaking off an engagement is not grounds for a lawsuit in Kentucky anymore. In Gilbert v. Barkes, the Kentucky Supreme Court abolished the common law action for breach of promise to marry. Prior to this case, an aggrieved spouse could sue the person who promised to marry them, but didn't follow through. The Court abolished the common law action for breach of promise to marry because society's view of women and marriage had changed markedly since the time when the action for breach of promise originated. The cause of action was also historically connected to the view that marriage was a property transaction. As a result, a person who expects to marry or who has married has no cause of action available to him or her based solely on his or her failure to achieve marital status, or to have exclusive affection or sexual rights during the marriage.

It should be noted, however, that the abolition of breach of promise to marry does not prevent a party from suing for economic losses or for some emotional damages. Under the appropriate facts, a plaintiff still has the ability to sue for intentional infliction of emotional distress. But in reality, it may be nearly impossible to recover for intentional infliction of emotional distress due to the cancelling of a marriage because adultery within a marriage will not support a suit for this tort. Hence, it would be surprising if a mere breach of promise to marry would do so.

So, who keeps the ring when an engagement is broken? Although there is authority to the contrary in other states, an engagement ring is a conditional gift which does not vest in the recipient until the marriage occurs. A gift of an engagement ring therefore is, as a general rule, subject to an implied condition requiring its return if the marriage does not take place. This rule pertains in particular where the engagement has been cancelled by agreement or broken by the ring recipient, but the rule also may be applied without regard to fault.

In the 1899 case of Heft v. Masden, the Court of Appeals of Kentucky held that when the plaintiff gave her engagement ring back to the defendant, the plaintiff discharged the defendant from his obligations arising from his promise to marry her. The Court found the testimony that the plaintiff threw the ring at the defendant after he went to West Point to visit some girls very compelling, as well as her instruction for him to not come calling for her again.

In the 1917 case of Walker v. Hester, Hester advanced money to Walker when Walker promised to marry him. When no marriage occurred, Hester sued Walker to recover the money. The jury found that Walker had to pay Hester back because a gift to a person to whom the gift giver is engaged to be married, made in contemplation of marriage is conditional; and upon breach of the marriage engagement by the gift recipient the property may be recovered by the gift giver.

In the 1934 case of Schultz v. Duitz, the Court of Appeals of Kentucky held that the then-existing statute entitling spouses to return property obtained in consideration of marriage, on final judgment of divorce, was inapplicable to the case of a broken contract to marry. The bottom line was that when the recipient of property breaches the contract to marry, the person who gave the property could recovery the property the recipient obtained from the giver in consideration of marriage. This proposition included the engagement ring. However, if the giver was the one who breached the contract to marry the recipient, the giver of the ring could not regain or retain the ring unless the recipient willingly returned it.

The historical root of the line of cases holding that the person who breaks the promise to marry is not entitled to return of the engagement ring is in English common law. In the 1917 case of Jacobs v. Davis, the Court held that though the origin of the engagement ring has been forgotten, the ring still retains its character of a pledge of something to bind the bargain or contract to marry, and is given upon the understanding that a party who breaks the contract must return it. Whether the engagement ring is a pledge or a conditional gift, the result is the same. In the 1926 case of Kohen v. Sellar, the Court held that if the woman who has received a ring refuses to fulfill the conditions of the gift, she must return it; and if the man has, without a recognized legal justification, refused to carry out his promise of marriage, he cannot demand the return of the engagement ring.

If the parties marry, but later divorce, what happens to the engagement ring? Generally, the ring is considered a gift from the husband to the wife, and the wife may keep the ring after the marriage ends. An engagement ring given by a person to his or her fianc? becomes unconditionally the property of the recipient upon marriage, and is not marital property upon dissolution of the marriage

But there's always the possibility for a result that is anomalous. In Glass v. Glass, an unreported Kentucky case, a different result was reached. One-half of the appraised value of the diamond ring was found to be marital property, and subject to equitable distribution upon divorce. In this case, the husband bought the new engagement ring for the wife. Under normal circumstances, this would have rendered the ring a gift. However, the wife used her own non-marital funds to pay half the cost of the diamond. Her conduct was not completely consistent with the ring being a gift from the husband. The husband also testified that the parties discussed buying the diamond as an investment.

The bottom line is that the principles governing gifts given in contemplation of marriage are not consistent with the general rules of gifts, nor wholly consistent within themselves. Since there has not been a recent case addressing who is entitled to keep an engagement ring after an engagement does not work out, the time may be right for a Kentucky court to give a modern perspective on this issue. It would be helpful for the court to clarify whether an engagement ring is a gift conditioned on marriage that must always be returned when the parties do not marry, or whether the engagement ring must only be returned if the recipient of the ring is the person who breaks off the engagement.

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For a free thirty minute consultation on your domestic relations issue, contact Stacy Anne Hoehle.

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