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Do I Have to Return THE ENGAGEMENT RING If We Don't Marry Or If We Later Divorce?


Q. I was given a beautiful and expensive diamond engagement ring by my fiancé. Now he says we shouldn't get married after all and he has demanded I return it! What are my rights? I wouldn't be surprised if he again changes his mind and decides he wants to get married, and if I do that, what then if we divorce?

Wedding Rings Where the Marriage is Called Off and the Engagement is Terminated

The symbol of the promise of love and fidelity is the engagement ring. We are conditioned by advertising and popular culture that diamonds are "forever" and therefore most appropriate for making such a promise (never mind the millions who have been killed or maimed in Africa in connection with their mining and acquisition). We have rules of thumb in our collective subconscious: A man (or woman) should spend 2 months' salary on an engagement ring for a prospective spouse. That's gross income, not net, gentlefolk!

A curious legal issue comes about when an engagement is called off. Under California general property law, the elements of a validly completed gift, so as to vest ownership rights in the recipient of the item, are three: (1) Intent to give/donate the item by the giftor, (2) Transfer of the item by title and/or delivery to the giftee, and (3) Actual or imputed acceptance of the item by the giftee. Turnbull v. Thomsen (Cal. App. 1959) 171 Cal.App.2d 779, 341 P.2d 69. Under general property gift law, one might think a person who proposes marriage and gives another person an engagement ring has vested full ownership in the other person even if the engagement is broken. Not so necessarily.

There are actually special, statute specific rules found in California's Civil Code concerning engagement rings concerning the full vestiture of ownership of the ring, and the rights to recovery in certain situations where a marriage does not result (which makes sense since they such jewelry is expensive and is gifted in connection with a special/confidential relationship between people contemplating marriage). These rules are found in Civil Code § 1590, which provides:

"Where either party to a contemplated marriage in this State makes a gift of money or property to the other on the basis or assumption that the marriage will take place, in the event that the donee refuses to enter into the marriage as contemplated or that it is given up by mutual consent, the donor may recover such gift or such part of its value as may, under all of the circumstances of the case, be found by a court or jury to be just."

In other words, if you give an engagement ring and the other person calls of the marriage you can get the ring back (or its monetary value), but if you call off the marriage the other person gets to keep the ring. As such, a good tip legally (but probably not on an interpersonal level) is that if an engagement is called off, get it in writing. Who says getting news of a break up by text message or email is a bad thing? Uncouth and impersonal, certainly. But such evidence is extremely helpful if a lawsuit for an engagement ring's recovery results (you might need to sue your ex-girlfriend for the $10,000 you paid El Paseo Jewelry three months for the ring which she just informed you she sold to Rocky's Pawn Shop for $1,500).

In analyzing Civil Code § 1590 vis a vis the common law gift elements, the two are actually quite harmonious; the intent of the giftor of an engagement ring is based on a qualified condition that s/he gets married to the other person. Without this condition precedent being met where a marriage is called off, the first element (donative intent) never completely occurs. Of course Civil Code § 1590 also makes a 'fault-like' provision by only applying to situations where the engagement ring recipient or both parties mutually call off the wedding. I suppose where divorces in California are 'no fault', dissolution of engagements are slightly fault-based.

So take the (not so) hypothetical scenario (I actually had this case several years ago and got a $10,000 default money judgment for my client) where the ex-girlfriend goes and pawns the ring (about a day after a letter from my office reached her demanding return of the ring). Technically, a properly plead lawsuit is for two causes of action one of replevin (i.e. to seek recovery and delivery of an item) and one of money damages (where the item cannot be returned such as where it has been sold to a third-party). Both causes of action should be plead in the alternative in a civil complaint by the unlucky giftor of the engagement ring. Also, the matter should be filed in either limited civil court (for rings costing anything less than $25,000) or general civil court (for rings costing more than $25,000), but not in small claims court (which usually hears matters of $10,000 or less). Why, you ask, not small claims court? Because small claims only allows for money judgments and not injunctive orders, and an injunction (i.e. an order to return the ring to the giftor) is the primary remedy available under Civil Code § 1590 (the money judgment for the ring's value is merely secondary). You don't want to go into small claims court and get a defense verdict for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

Wedding Rings Where the Marriage Occurs and Several Years Later a Divorce Proceeding Begins

Another twist to the engagement ring problem can occur when the marriage is not called off, but rather a divorce occurs several years later if the ring is purchased on credit. In this scenario, the ring is the separate property of the recipient since it was gifted before the marriage to the other spouse (Fam. C. § 770(a)) and the condition precedent of the marriage solemnization/certification has occurred satisfying the giftor's donative intent element for a valid transfer of ownership to take place. Simultaneously, the debt for the ring is the separate property obligation of the giftor since, in the case of an unsecured credit line, the contract was entered into by the giftor spouse prior to the marriage (Fam. C. § 903(a); Marriage of Feldner (1995) 40 CA4th 617, 619, 47 CR2d 312, 313).

Now say the giftor doesn't make payments on the $10,000 ring until after the marriage ceremony, and makes those payments from his wage income over the next five years (with interest, paying actually $20,000 in those years). The giftor spouse has just set up a scenario where the ring-recipient spouse, through the community estate, has a potential claim for reimbursement in the divorce case to the community of $20,000 (i.e. the giftee, individually, of $10,000) of those community monies (i.e. post-marital income, which is community property; Fam. C. § 760) used to pay the ring's debt, in addition to having ownership of the full value of the ring itself (another $10,000 value). The marital property debt liability statutes expressly recognize a community right of reimbursement when community funds have been used to pay a spouse's separate debts in some specific scenarios such as support obligation from a prior marriage at a time the obligor spouse had nonexempt separate income available (Fam.C. § 915(b)), and where community funds have been used to discharge a spouse's tort liability for which the tortfeasor spouse's separate property was primarily liable (Fam.C. § 1000(b)(2) & (c)). The Rutter's Group, Cal. Prac. Guide Family L. Ch. 8-D: Marital Property Debt Liability And Reimbursement Claims, at 8:865. A potential reimbursement for community income used to pay the engagement ring's debt is not mandatory, but rather discretionary with the court pursuant to Fam.C. § 2553 (discretion to make whatever orders it "considers necessary" to carry out the net equal division of the community estate mandate of Fam.C. § 2500, et seq.

While I do not know of a reported appellate case that involves a reimbursement claim under Fam.C. § 2553 for community monies used to pay off an engagement ring debt, the lack of such a case does not necessarily mean such a reimbursement has not been ordered in trial courts in California. It is an interesting potential claim to present to the court under the right circumstances (i.e. a low/no asset case), but the equitable argument against such a reimbursement seems stronger in most cases involving other substantial assets and debts (i.e. why should a divorce litigant get both a $10,000 ring and a $10,000 reimbursement for the debt repayment with its interest?). In any event, caution indicates that a spouse paying for an engagement ring into the marriage from newly earned income should seek a written waiver of a reimbursement claim from the other spouse (i.e. the engagement ring recipient) in a manner that does not give rise to the presumption of undue influence.

I hope this helps! BTW, is this the right guy for you because in my experience this marriage is a recipe for heartache and you might want to consult with a competent family law attorney before you do. Also, you certainly could address this issue in a premarital agreement.

Michael C. Peterson, Esq.

Law Firm of Thurman W. Arnold III, CFLS