By Austin J. Griffin* | Staff Writer
The holiday season approaches and many out there will be leaning in close to their sweethearts, bracing against the chilly winds. Some will even be pining for a longer sort of “lean in” – an engagement. However, if the relationship cools, they may want to consider where that engagement ring may go.
As the New York Post reported this past October, a New York judge recently ruled that a woman “who broke up with her boyfriend [could] keep a $10,200 ‘engagement ring’ because her paramour didn’t make a marriage proposal when he [gave her the ring].” All the man said was that “it was a gift for being a great woman, a good mother of his child.” No wedding was expected for the confused couple at the time – the woman herself unclear whether she was engaged. All the ex-boyfriend had to do, however, was propose so that the gift became one “given in contemplation of marriage” and therefore returnable.
The judge’s New York ruling provides questions that may reach many unhappy couples. What, legally, is an engagement ring? What does the law say about keeping the ring after a broken engagement? In order to prevent such a costly mistake, this article will attempt to give a brief overview of the law pertaining to “gifts in contemplation of marriage” generally, the law in North Carolina, and how a North Carolina court might rule on this case. To start, we’ll consider the idea of the gift itself.
What’s a Gift, Anyway?
The law of gifts is divided into two distinct paths, depending on the state of the donor or person giving the gift. These two paths are inter vivos and causa mortis. Now, gifts causa mortis only apply when the donor is near to death, so they can be ignored here. Because the donor tends to be alive when proposing marriage, an engagement ring is an inter vivos gift. According to Harvard fellow Ruth Sarah Lee, under common law, the elements of a valid inter vivos gift are:
“(1) an intention to give and surrender title to and dominion over the property (i.e. donative intent), (2) delivery of the property to the done, and (3) acceptance by the donee [gift receiver].”
Normally, this is not an issue with engagement rings given in contemplation of marriage because the donor has every intention to give the property to the donee, and the donee accepts it, understanding that an engagement has occurred. However, the engagement ring is not your average gift. Continue reading »