In 1965 Gary Lewis and the Playboys released an album entitled “This Diamond Ring.” In the opening lines of the lead song Gary Lewis asks the musical question; “Who wants to buy this diamond ring? She took it off her finger now it doesn’t mean a thing… this diamond ring doesn’t mean what it did before.”
However, in the world of separation and divorce that diamond ring is often worth a great deal of money and people have fought epic battles over its possession. If the marriage never happens who gets the engagement ring? What happens when the marriage occurs but is short lived. How do we decide which party gets the ring? Is it the person who gave the ring or the person who wore it? Does “fault”, such as infidelity, cruelty or abandonment play any part in the determination? The answers to these questions depend upon where you live.
Let’s start with the question of who gets the ring if the marriage never takes place. For many years a number of states followed the rule that an engagement ring was a conditional gift made in contemplation of the marriage. If the parties mutually agreed not to marry the ring went back to the person who gave it to his intended bride. However, if the engagement came to an end because of the “fault” of one of the parties the person at fault forfeited the right to the ring. This construct put the judge in the middle of a messy, often acrimonious battle of who did what to whom, how often and why. The party at fault lost possession of the ring. This rule is still the law in some jurisdictions across the United States such as California, Illinois, Missouri and Texas.
Reacting to the distasteful and almost impossible task of deciding which of two warring parties was at fault or greater fault (are there not always two sides to a story?) other states have constructed a “no-fault” rule. Under this rule the first step is to determine whether the ring was clearly given in contemplation of marriage. No magic words are necessary and a bended knee is not an absolute requirement. Rather, the court looks at the total circumstances which surround the giving of the ring. In these states, the majority in our nation, if the ring was clearly given in anticipation of the marriage and the marriage does not take place, for whatever reason, the ring goes back to the person who gave it.
What happens when the person who was wearing the ring no longer has it? Suppose the distraught ex-fiancé throws it into the river or hocks it at a pawn shop.
A man in Alabama proposed to his live-in girlfriend on Christmas Eve, giving her a 2.5 carat diamond ring in a holiday gift bag. Fortunately for him he gave the gift bag to the woman while on one knee, proposing marriage. Months later, the woman called off the engagement. Initially the woman claimed that she had thrown the ring into a river. Later it was revealed that she had hocked the $32,000 ring for $10,000. According to her, the ring was a Christmas gift not an engagement ring. She also disputed the man’s story that he made a simultaneous proposal of marriage.
The court ultimately ruled that the ring was indeed a gift in contemplation of marriage and that the man was entitled to its return because no marriage ensued. Given her conduct in disposing of the ring he was then awarded damages in the amount of $32,000. Collecting this money may be a different story.
And so what happens when the ring is given prior to the marriage, the parties do marry and then divorce? Take the case of Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries, ex-husband and ex-NBA basketball player. Prior to their marriage Kris had given Kim an eye-popping 20 carat engagement ring which he purchased for $2 million dollars. When the relationship cratered a mere 72 days after the wedding Kris asked for a return of the ring. Now what?
Since the marriage had taken place the ring was no longer a conditional gift. Under New York Law the ring would have been Kim’s since it was given to her prior to the marriage and therefore her separate property. However, their divorce took place in California where the law is different. In the negotiation between the divorce attorneys Kris got the ring back and sold it at auction for approximately $620,000, after paying off the costs of the auction. Another “L” in the win-loss column!