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Winter is behind us and the flowers are in bloom which could mean that love is in the air and the wedding season is about to get in high gear. However, as relationships sometimes go, what if the engagement ends without a wedding? The question becomes who gets the ring, the man, who under normal circumstances purchased the ring, or the woman? The answer: it depends. The Eastern District Appellate Court recently gave an analysis on how to arrive at the answer in Clippard vs. Pfefferkorn.

In Clippard, the Plaintiff and Defendant dated for approximately four or five months in late 2002. Right before Christmas, on December 23, 2002, Plaintiff proposed marriage to Defendant and presented Defendant with a 2.02 carat diamond engagement ring valued at approximately $13,500.00. Defendant accepted Plaintiff’s proposal of marriage and the engagement ring. Thereafter on Christmas Day, Defendant and Plaintiff exchanged Christmas gifts.

During the weeks that followed Christmas 2002, the relationship between Plaintiff and Defendant began to fall apart. Approximately six weeks after proposing marriage to Defendant, Plaintiff terminated the engagement and demanded the return of the engagement ring. However, Defendant refused to return the ring. Thereafter, in July 2003, Plaintiff filed his lawsuit in which he alleged that Plaintiff made a conditional gift of the engagement ring in contemplation of marriage. Further, Plaintiff requested the trial court order Defendant return the engagement ring, or in the alternative, to pay Plaintiff damages in the amount of $13,500.00.

At trial, Plaintiff testified that although the ring was given just before Christmas, that it was not a Christmas gift but an engagement ring. Plaintiff testified further that he terminated the engagement with Defendant because he knew that he did not want to marry Defendant and that he was influenced to terminate the engagement by members of his family.

Defendant testified that the ring was a Christmas gift and an engagement ring from Plaintiff. Defendant also testified that she loved Plaintiff and intended to marry him at the time Plaintiff called off their engagement and that Plaintiff was pressured by his family to terminate the relationship. At the conclusion of the trial, the trial court ruled in favor of Defendant, allowing Defendant to retain possession of the engagement ring.

Plaintiff appealed the trial court’s ruling, arguing that the trial court erred because the ruling was against the weight of the evidence and contrary to Missouri law. Specifically, the ring was a gift made in contemplation of marriage and was, therefore, a conditional gift. Therefore, because the marriage did not occur, upon the termination of the engagement, Plaintiff was entitled to the return of the engagement ring. Defendant counter argued that she was entitled to retain the ring because the ring constituted either (1) an “inter vivos” (i.e., lifetime) gift which became absolute when she received it; or (2) the ring was a conditional gift which became absolute when Plaintiff terminated the engagement.

The Court first reviewed Missouri law as it related to inter vivos (lifetime) gifts. Under Missouri law the essential elements of an inter vivos gift are: (1) the donor’s present intent to make a gift; (2) the donor’s delivery of the property to the donee; and (3) the donee’s acceptance of the gift. Upon acceptance of an inter vivos gift, ownership takes effect immediately and absolutely. A completed inter vivos gift cannot be revoked by the donor. The Court determined that the ring was not an inter vivos gift, stating that clearly the evidence in the record established that the ring was not merely a Christmas gift.

The Court then turned its attention to conditional gifts. Under Missouri law if the donor makes a gift subject to a condition, the donee’s failure or refusal to perform the condition or violation of the condition constitutes grounds for revocation of the gift by the donor. The donor always retains the right to revoke the gift unless or until the condition is satisfied. Further, Missouri courts have held that a gift given in contemplation of marriage is made upon the implied condition that the gift will become absolute when the marriage takes place. Therefore, a gift given in contemplation of marriage, although absolute in form, is a conditional gift and may be revoked by the donor if the marriage engagement is breached by the donee. The Court held that the evidence at trial established that the ring was a conditional gift made in contemplation of marriage and could therefore be revoked by the donor.

The Court did not stop its analysis there, however. The Court went on to state that Missouri uses a fault-based approach to determine a party’s right to gifts made in contemplation of marriage. The Court stated that “as the donor of the conditional gift in contemplation of marriage, Plaintiff would have been entitled to the return of the ring if the engagement had been terminated by Defendant through no fault of Plaintiff.” However, because Plaintiff terminated the engagement, through no fault of Defendant, Defendant was entitled to retain the ring. Both Plaintiff and Defendant had testified that Plaintiff terminated the relationship due to the influence of Plaintiff’s family. The Court also noted that Defendant was entitled to retain the ring because, by terminating the engagement, Plaintiff breached his promise to marry Defendant. Moreover, had the marriage taken place, there is no question that Defendant would have been entitled to retain the ring as her own non-marital property.

What is the lesson to be learned from this case? Without edit, this is what one of female associate attorneys wrote:

Thus, the lesson to be learned from this case is, if you are the donor of the engagement ring, you should initially purchase an inexpensive ring. This way if you decide not to marry your intended, you are not out a lot of money. Moreover, if the marriage does take place, you can always purchase your wife a more expensive ring for your ten-year anniversary. As for the woman, make sure you get as big a rock as possible, and then if you should change your mind about marrying, make his life so miserable that he breaks off the relationship!

There are probably more, perhaps many more, lessons to be drawn from the misfortune of the broken engagement between Mr. Clippard and Ms. Pfefferkorn and the ensuing litigation over the engagement ring. However, perhaps these lessons are best discussed among counselors of a different stripe, and not us, mere counselors-at-law!

Thanks to one of our e-LawLines readers for suggesting this topic. It was interesting to research and write the article.