Whose engagement ring is it anyway?
With Valentine’s Day approaching, no doubt many men are considering a marriage proposal to their significant others. But before “fools rush in”, consider this: Who gets the engagement ring if the wedding is called off? Believe it or not, there is a law in New York State that contemplates such eventualities.
Civil Rights Law § 80-b states that “nothing in this article [contained] shall be construed to bar a right of action for the recovery of chattel . . . or the value thereof . . . when the sole consideration for the transfer of the chattel . . . was a contemplated marriage which has not occurred . . .” Section 80-b is intended “to return the parties to the position they were in prior to becoming engaged, without rewarding or punishing either party for the fact that the marriage failed to materialize.” Gaden v. Gaden 29 N.Y. 2d 80, 88.
However, consider where the proposer is in the midst of a divorce that has not been finalized before the proposal. Such was the unfortunate fate of the Romeo in Listoken v. Kreitman 2007 NY Slip Op 34260. Listoken sued his former fiance Kreitman for the return of the $76,000.00 engagement ring kept by Kreitman after their breakup. The Court found that since Listoken was married at the time of the proposal, the enagement ring could not be recovered on the grounds that “an agreement to marry under such circumstances is void as against public policy . . . and it is not saved or rendered valid by the fact that the married individual contemplated divorce and that the agreement was conditioned on procurement of the divorce.” Lowe v. Quinn 27 N.Y.2 d, 397, 400 (1971)
Public policy, however, does not proscribe a return of the ring in situations where unbeknownst to the plaintiff, the defendant recipient of the ring was still married. In Shoenfeld v Fontek 67 Misc 2d 481 (1971), the unmarried male plaintiff sought to recover property he gave to the married female defendant in contemplation of their marriage, which ultimately did not take place. The defendant argued that no recovery was permissible because she was already married, and an impediment to the marriage therefore existed. The Supreme Court determined that the rule precluding recovery in such cases “is not intended to bar an action for the return of property by an innocent party, not aware of the other’s disability to contract a marriage at the time of the “engagement’”.
Of course, the foregoing rules apply only to a ring given as an engagement ring. If there were reasons other than a contemplated marriage why the gift was given, such as part of a birthday or holiday celebration, the ring may not be subject to return. Where there is a genuine dispute as to the circumstances under which the ring was given, a trial may be necessary to determine the facts.