Avoid Legal Pitfalls on Your Valentine’s Day Engagement

Posted February 14, 2013 in Editors Picks Your Family & The Law by

Engagement ring in a heart shaped boxValentine’s Day can mean chocolate, flowers . . . and an engagement ring?

Couples whose cupid-day festivities include bending down on one knee have every reason to celebrate with smooches and champagne, but nevertheless should be aware of the legal implications of getting engaged.

While engagement isn’t a legal contract per se, it can involve the exchange or sharing of property that could bring lawyers into the picture if the union goes sour. In particular, the engagement ring itself is considered a “conditional gift” in many states and may have to be returned to the giver should the once-happy couple decide to call the whole thing off.

California, for example, has language in its Civil Code that specifically addresses gifts given on the assumption that a marriage will take place.

“What this code essentially says is that if you give your fiancee an engagement ring in contemplation of marriage, and if before the marriage your fiancee refuses to marry you, you’re entitled to your gift back,” says Terry A. Szucsko, a family law attorney with San Francisco firm Lvovich, Volchegursky & Szucsko.


Gifting Conditionally

Terry A. Szucsko

If a former partner refuses to return a gift given on the condition of marriage, the giver can take them to civil court to get it back. In the case of an engagement ring, it’s fairly easy to show that it was given in contemplation of marriage. Other gifts aren’t so cut and dry — you can’t ask for birthday, Christmas, Valentine’s Day or other presents to be returned just because of a breakup; you would have to convince the court the gifts came hand-in-hand with the marriage.

Who gets to keep the ring in California also depends on who called off the engagement. “You have to be careful with that statute,” Szucsko says. “There is case law that says if I give my fiancee a ring, and for whatever reason I refuse to marry her, then I may not be entitled to my ring back.”

California’s approach to returning the ring is relatively unusual. Iowa, Kansas, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and a number of other states follow a “no fault” broken engagement philosophy that dictates that the ring be returned to whoever purchased it regardless of why the couple decided to not get married.

Montana appears to be the only state that considers wedding rings to be an “unconditional gift,” with no obligation on the recipient to return it even if the marriage never happens, as decided in the 2002 state Supreme Court case Albinger v. Harris.


Don’t Forget About Oral Contracts

Engagement rings aren’t the only item of value in play during an engagement. Couples start to shell out big bucks for their wedding plans, and would be wise to make sure they know who is paying for what before it all collapses and everybody starts suing each other.

“If a couple agrees to split the expenses of a marriage 50-50, that’s an oral contract,” Szucsko says. “You would be smart to get it in writing, but a contract is a contract and you can sue under it.”

Couples who want to prevent disaster before it happens can see an attorney to ensure that all their affairs are in order. “Just like you enter into a written premarital agreement for what happens after you get married, you could do the same thing for how the expenses will be split before marriage,” the attorney says.

Szucko’s best advice for happy partners who want to get engaged this Valentine’s Day? “I would say just use your common sense.”

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