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Whose Ring Is It Anyway?

Julia Jensen Smolka

Love is in the air. Between Christmas and Valentine’s Day, there is a surge of wedding proposals. There is also a surge in the purchase of expensive diamond engagement rings. Usually those engagements end in wedding bells and nuptials. However, sometimes they do not. Current statistics show twenty percent of engaged couples break off engagements before weddings take place.

When the engagement ends, who ends up with the ring?

An engagement ring, given as part of a proposal, has been found to be a conditional gift. It is a gift, given by one party to another in contemplation of marriage between the parties. The proposal itself is a contract between two people – it’s a promise to marry. Once the parties are married, the condition for the gift is met, making the party who received the engagement ring the owner of the ring. The ring is a gift and it cannot be taken back by the giver.

Illinois courts have typically required the return of an engagement ring if the parties fail to marry. The courts found that an engagement ring is a gift given in contemplation of a marriage and is a conditional gift, meaning if the marriage does not happen, the ring should be returned to the proposing party.

But what happens if the party proposed to breaks off the engagement? What if the party in possession of the ring acts in such a way which makes going forward with the marriage impossible? What if the proposing party commits adultery during the engagement? What if there exists other abuse, addiction or other faults committed by the proposing party, making calling off the wedding a valid choice by the party in possession of the engagement ring? What if the proposing party is at fault for the breakup? The cases as they are now being decided find that fault does not matter. The ring must be returned if the marriage does not go forward.

The underlying law used as basis for the lawsuit is called a replevin action, and under Illinois replevin laws, there is no mention of assessing or considering “fault” when determining who is entitled to keep the ring. It matters who purchases the ring, why it was purchased, and why the party has the ring in his or her possession. The judges do not look at the party who was “bad.” The judge must decide which party has the right to possess and keep the ring.

I recently represented a woman who was given a very expensive diamond cocktail ring by her boyfriend. They broke up and she kept the ring. Six years after the breakup, the former boyfriend filed suit for return of the ring, claiming it was an engagement ring and my client had wrongfully kept it. My client maintained the position that it was just a gift, no proposal was made, no acceptance given and no engagement, meaning no conditional gift was made and the ring belonged to my client. The judge dismissed the action, without having to decide whether the ring was an engagement ring because the former boyfriend brought the lawsuit six years after the breakup. There is a five-year statute of limitations from the time of a breakup to bring an action to recover an engagement ring. My client’s former boyfriend was a year too late.

This was a interesting case, and I enjoyed working on it. If you have any interesting litigation cases, call me. I would love to discuss them with you.

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