Written by attorney Rebecca Elizabeth Szewczuk

Who Keeps the Ring when the Wedding is Called Off?

Girl mets Boy. Boy and Girl fall in love. Boy proposes marriage to Girl. Girl says yes. Then right before the wedding ceremony someone gets cold feet and breaks off the engagement.

Now the question becomes who keeps the engagement ring?

In the state of New York, under Civil Rights Law 80-b, a person may be entitled to the recovery of property given in contemplation of a marriage that does not take place, regardless of who is responsible for the failure of the marriage to go forward. Who is at fault over the break up is totally irrelevant to whether a party is entitled to the return of the engagement ring. However, if the party giving the ring knows that there exists an impediment to a lawful marriage (e.g. the party is still married), this may preclude recovery of the ring.

The history surrounding the current gift in contemplation of marriage law is an interesting one. Early in American legal history, women were able to recover damages when men promised marriage and then reneged. Some states codified this breach of promise, and the laws were commonly referred to as heartbalm statutes.

Between the 1930s and 1950s, America experienced a backlash from these heartbalm statutes when it was realized that some avaricious women were deceiving men into proposing marriage and later suing these men for a breach of promise. In NY, the public proclaimed a huge uproar over not only these deceptive women but greedy attorneys who initiated these lawsuits. In the early 1930s, newspapers editorials ran articles expressing their distaste for heartbalm statutes and pleaded with legislatures to rectify the inequity in the law. In 1935, the NY Legislature enacted article 2-A of the Civil Practice Act. The article sought to abolish causes of action for, among other things, breach of contract to marry.

After the passage of the anti-heartbalm statutes, courts were faced with the question of what happens when the injury is not from the loss of love, but from gifts given in the anticipation of marriage. Prior to 1965, NY courts determined that donors were not permitted to recover ante-nuptial gift. During the period between 1935 and 1965, a party retained any gifts given in contemplation of marriage. NY's anti-heartbalm legislation, eventually led to another public outcry. The public voiced their dissatisfaction with the current law stating that "a resourceful young woman would simply persuade her swain to shower her with gifts in anticipation of a marriage which she herself would then reject. In trying to remedy an old abuse, the courts seemingly permitted a new one." See Goldstein v Rosenthal, 56 Misc 2d 311, 312-13 [Civ Ct 1968]

Finally, in 1965, section 80-b was added to the Civil Rights Law to provide that nothing in the statute shall be construed to bar a right of action to recover property transferred solely in consideration of a contemplated marriage that has not occurred.

As the current law stands, if two people are engaged and either party gives the other a gift in contemplation of the engagement, that person may recover the property if the marriage does not occur, regardless of who breaks off the engagement.

This principal applies to other gifts, not only engagement rings. In Mancuso v Russo, the donor sued his ex-fiancee to rescind a deed transferring real property. The Supreme Court entered a judgment in favor of the plaintiff and the defendant appealed. The Supreme Court, Appellate Division, held that finding that donor's gift of real property was conditioned upon his subsequent marriage to beneficiary was sufficiently supported in the evidence. See Mancuso v Russo, 132 AD2d 533 [2nd Dept 1987]. The Court further stated that "since the marriage never took place, the conveyance of the property to the plaintiff would satisfy the "clear purpose of Section 80-b..." See Id at 534.

If you have an ex-fiance(e) who refuses to return a gift given in contemplation of the marriage, you may have a cause of action to recover the property or the value of the property. For someone like Mr. Mekalianis, that is good news. Of course, Mr. Mekalianis is from California and each state has their own laws regarding gifts in contemplation of marriage.

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