Written by attorney Susan L. Jeffries

When the Engagement Falls Apart, Who Gets the Ring?

WHEN a couple breaks up, does the ring go back to the giver or stay with the recipient? Social ettiquette seems to go in one direction while legal decisions may go otherwise. The conflict over the ring has led couples to court. Sometimes people spend more than they can afford on the ring and thenwhen they break up the rings may not be worth enough to offset the cost of litigation. While ettiquette seems to be somewhat standardized, the law of engagement rings varies from state to state. One high-profile New York case was that of Sharon Bush and Gerald Tsai, the billionaire investor who has since died. In December 2006, Mr. Tsai gave Ms. Bush (the former wife of Neil Bush, a brother of the president) an 11-carat canary-diamond ring he bought for $243,040 at Saks. The engagement was called off in Januray but Ms. Bush did not return the ring so Mr. Tsai filed suit in Manhattan Supreme Court seeking its return. Ms. Bush and her lawyer, Raoul Felder, took the position that the ring was a Christmas gift, and therefore did not have to be returned. In New York, a “nonconditional gift" does not have to be returned. That was headed to court but was settled by agreement In recent years courts have almost always held that the ring goes back to the buyer, no matter the circumstances. The premise is that the engagement ring is a conditional gift -- the condition being that a marriage take place. And if it does not, the agreement is rendered null and void. Furthermore, courts have ruled that it does not matter who broke the engagement, the donor or the recipient. Some states believe that if you have no-fault divorce, you must have no-fault engagements, In other states there is a split of opinion as to whether the donor should get the ring back if he broke the engagement without just cause reasoning that the purpose of an engagement to be a trial period and that it is better to break an engagement than a marriage and “Whose fault" should be irrelevant. Many states would give the ring to the buyer, but also allow exceptions. Although Texas courts there generally accept the premise that an engagement ring is a conditional gift, and the giver gets it back if there is a breakup. They also sometimes make exceptions depending on who instigated the breakup. In a 2003 decision the Texas court decided that if the donor was the one who broke the promise, then the recipient could keep it because he has broken the condition, so some courts say that he should probably suffer by losing the ring. In these states, establishing who is at fault can be tricky and painful.Ms. The the economic or emotional cost of putting the two people’s entire relationship on trial is usually not worth for most people. Ettiquette expert Letitia Baldrige, social secretary to Jackie Kennedy, says the person who breaks the engagement is responsible for making good. "If the woman breaks it, she should send the ring back immediately," Ms. Baldrige said. "If it is the man, he should say, 'Of course you keep the ring.' " Should the ring be a family heirloom, Ms. Baldrige added, the woman should return it. "But then he should buy her another piece of jewelry or simply give her a credit at a jewelry shop," she added. "Nice people do that." In states where the ring is part of a contract to marry, the ring must be returned if the contract is voided by outside events. Such as when the groom gives the ring before his divorce is final. Since he is not legally able to become engaged, he cannot get the ring back because he knew of the legal impediment to the marriage at the time it was given. When the donor dies before the marriage and it is the death that prevents the marriage. Then the donee may keep the ring." Even after the marriage has taken place and the ring is unequivocally the property of the wife, questions may still arise. In most states once the marriage occurs, the wife keeps it because the conditions were completed. However if the original ring is upgraded or improved, it may become marital property which can be divided in a divorce. In California, the engagement ring is regarded as personal property of the wife if it has a relatively modest value. A very valuable ring, relative to the parties income level, could be regarded as a marital property “investment" which would be divided as a marital asset. If it is paid for with pre-marital funds, however, the donor would get his money back. In one case, the angry wife threw her ring at the soon to be exhusband and the court found this effectively transfered title to the rings back to the donor. In another case, the donor gave his intended bride a ring containing a stone from his grandmothers’ ring. In a bitterly contested case both parties accused the other of theft, breach of contract, fraud, interference with prospective business interests, negligence, battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Cutting through the evasive, self-serving testimony that followed in the court trial, the court eventually awarded the ring to the donor because the Wife had already taken other property. In one case where the donee kept the ring, when she divorced the donor and discovered that the ring was not worth the $43,000 her exhusband had paid for it prior to their marriage she tried to sue the selling jeweler to recover the lost value.

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