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Ring Giver Beware!

A recent story on the Internet deemed newsworthy enough to go international and even be reported on various radio and TV outlets prompted me to revisit the issue of how the law deals with disputes involving “engagement rings”. In an earlier blog, Engagement Rings: Conditional Gifts and the Family Court, my colleague at this firm, Daniel A. Burton, Esq provided an overview of how the courts here in the State of New Jersey deal with engagement rings, particularly in the context of what happens when the parties break up before the marriage takes place. In a nutshell, our law generally considers engagement rings to be “conditional gifts”. As discussed in the case of Aronow v. Silver, 223 N.J. Super 34 (Ch. Div. 1987), an engagement ring is considered a conditional gift premised upon the eventuality of a marriage. According to the Court, if the engagement is broken off and the marriage does not take place, regardless of fault, the condition has not been met, that ring remains the property of the party making the conditional gift and should be returned. However, once the marriage takes place, the condition of the gift has been satisfied and the recipient of the ring becomes its rightful owner. Further, in this instance, that ring is considered the separate property of the recipient and is not subject to equitable distribution in the event of divorce. See Winer v. Winer, 242 N.J., Super 510 (App. Div., 1990). However, in these cases there was no dispute that the parties involved were engaged, and that the ring was given as a symbol of that engagement in contemplation of their future marriage. The recently reported Long Island case of Torres v. Lopez, 45 Misc. 3d 1207 (A)(Dis. Ct. N.Y. October 14, 2014) highlighted that this is not necessarily the end of the inquiry in circumstances where there is a bona fide dispute as whether the ring itself was given in contemplation of marriage and thereby even qualifies as an “engagement ring”.

In Torres, the plaintiff brought an action against the defendant seeking the return of a diamond ring valued at approximately $10,000, which he claimed constituted an engagement ring given in contemplation of marriage. The defendant disputed this contention, claiming that the ring was given simply as a gift to her by the plaintiff for being a “good mother” and a “good wife”. Note the parties never married. At trial, only the parties testified. Years earlier, the parties met while working together and began dating. At some point, the defendant became pregnant with the plaintiff’s child who was born in 2004. The parties began living together shortly thereafter. At the end of 2011, there was a physical altercation between the parties, ultimately resulting in the break up of their relationship. In or about March, 2010, the parties had gone to the Manhattan Diamond District to look at diamond rings. An initial $1,000 deposit was made. It was subsequently purchased a month later with a balance of $9,200 paid for same. There was some dispute as to whose funds were used to purchase this ring.

Plaintiff testified that after purchasing the ring, the parties walked to Rockefeller Center, at which point the plaintiff gave the ring to their son who then gave it to the defendant, at which time he claimed that he had asked the defendant to marry him and that the defendant said “absolutely”. Plaintiff also testified that both parties had spoken about getting married before the ring was given, that defendant had showed the ring to her friends and family, that plans had been made to throw an engagement party although it never took place,  that the parties had also looked at wedding bands and that they had discussed wedding plans, although no wedding date had been set before their relationship ended. On the other hand, the defendant confirmed the manner in which the ring was given to her at Rockefeller Center, but denied that the plaintiff either then or at any other time had asked her to marry him.  She testified that Plaintiff, who had been married twice before,  had indicated to her that he had never wanted to get married again. Ambiguous is how one could characterize how defendant described the nature of their relationship or how she responded when people may have asked her about the ring. She stated that plaintiff decided to purchase this ring because she deserved it “for being a good mother, a good wife, and he wanted to show, you know, his expression by purchasing this ring.” Besides the parties’ conflicting testimony, the only evidence presented to the court was a business card and invoice from the jeweler, neither of which referred to the ring as an “engagement” ring.

In finding the defendant’s version of the events more credible, the Court determined that the Plaintiff had given this ring to the Defendant as a “gift”, though not a gift  in contemplation of marriage.  As such, he was not entitled to recover a completed gift, and the Defendant was entitled to retain ownership of the ring. In so doing, the Court appeared to place great weight upon the fact that the invoice made no mention of the ring as being an “engagement ring” as well as the fact that no engagement announcement had been sent out, nor any wedding venue booked. The  Court also noted that the parties had a prior history of exchanging gifts with each other, had entered into a domestic partnership (presumably for medical insurance purposes), and had referred to each other as husband and wife prior to the ring being given as a gift. Hence, the court was of the view that since it was not given as a symbol of engagement or in contemplation of marriage, it was not a conditional gift, but rather a completed inter vivos gift to the defendant.

How does this result jive with New Jersey law on this topic?  Regardless of your feelings as to the actual result given the circumstances presented in Torres, I believe that the New York Court’s rationale would likely hold in New Jersey. In its decision, the court in Aronow made passing reference to the case of Gerard v. Distefano, 84 N.J. Super. 396 (Ch. Div. 1964). In its disposition of an engagement ring issue, the court in that case briefly and summarily stated:  “As to plaintiff’s demand that defendant return a ring he gave her as an engagement ring, this court finds a paucity of evidence that the ring was so intended. Therefore, this court finds that it was a gift inter vivos and need not be returned.” Id at 403.  Generally, an inter vivos gift has been defined as a transfer of property without consideration requiring two things: a delivery of the possession of the property to the donee and an intent that the title thereto shall pass immediately to the donee. See generally In re: Dodge, 50 N. J. 192 (1967).   Clearly, to rise to the level of a “conditional gift” and to be truly viewed as an “engagement ring”, the mere fact that the parties are in a serious relationship itself is not enough. The fact that it is a diamond ring,  no matter how expensive, itself is not enough. If not wanting this issue to turn upon the credibility of the parties and their divergent stories, it is evident that there should be some objective evidence that it was truly an “engagement” ring given in anticipation or contemplation of marriage. Does the invoice refer to it as an “engagement” ring?  Were there witnesses to the proposal?  Was an engagement announcement published?  Was there an actual “engagement” party, and were cards or gifts exchanged? Was an actual wedding date set, actual plans made, or arrangements booked? Clearly the absence of such evidence or proofs impacted the Court’s decision in Torres. In the absence of an actual dispute as to whether there was an engagement or not, the law on this issue seems fairly settled, however, the absence of such evidence or proofs makes disposition of this issue far more problematic. Simply stated: ring giver beware.