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In Pennsylvania, Who Owns the Engagement Ring?
By Matthew T. Hovey
Wolf, Baldwin & Associates, P.C.
In Pennsylvania, if an engagement to be married is ended, who owns the engagement ring, the giver or the receiver? Does it matter who ended the engagement? Does the reason why matter? What about who is at fault? These are questions more often raised over drinks at a cocktail party amidst laughter and chiding than during a client consultation. When it is raised during a client consultation, however, the answer can have serious consequences.
Consider if the engagement ring is an expensive family heirloom. For example, imagine the engagement ring is a one hundred year old Tiffany & Co. ring with dazzling stones. This is the same ring that your great-grandfather offered to your great-grandmother on bended knee. It is the “crown jewel” of your family, and because both of your great-grandparents are now deceased, your parents made the ring available for your use when you find the person with whom you want to share the rest of your life. Now imagine, with great pride and sentiment, you, like your great-grandfather before you, get down on bended knee and offer the ring along with a proposal of marriage to your significant other. She then affectionately accepts, you set a date, and begin the task of planning the wedding. Unfortunately, before you both make it down the aisle, something happens and the wedding is called off. Or, in the alternative, you both marry but years down the road you divorce. Now the questions raised in this article are no laughing matter and whether the ring is returned impacts your entire family.
In 1999, in the case Lindh v. Surman, 742 A.2d 643 (Pa. 1999), the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania definitively answered these questions. As way of background, Rodger Lindh, described as a “divorced, middle-aged man,” and Janis Surman, described as “the object of Rodger’s inconstant affections,” were engaged. When Rodger proposed, he presented Janis with a diamond engagement ring which he purchased for $17,400 (after he allegedly received a discount for being a “good customer” of the jeweler). Subsequently, “discord developed,” which led Rodger to break the engagement and ask for the return of the ring. Janis obliged. The story continues, however, as Rodger then proposed for a second time, which Janis also accepted. Months later, Rodger again broke the engagement and requested return of the ring. This time Janis refused. Legal action followed shortly thereafter and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.
In the Lindh decision, the Supreme Court reaffirmed a prior holding that an engagement ring is a conditional gift to the receiver. Quoting the prior opinion, the Court explained that a “gift given by a man to a woman on condition that she embark on the sea of matrimony with him is no different from a gift based on the condition that the donee sail on any other sea. If, after receiving the provisional gift, the donee refuses to leave the harbor – if the anchor of contractual performance sticks in the sands of irresolution and procrastination – the gift must be restored to the donor.” Any transfer of ownership of the ring, therefore, is conditioned upon the actual marriage of the parties.
The Supreme Court then clarified that the reason why the parties never married is irrelevant. In other words, the law does not care who initiated the termination of the engagement or whose fault it is that the engagement was called off. To help justify its holding, the Supreme Court quoted a decision by the Kansas Supreme Court which explained that, “by way of illustration, should courts be asked to determine which of the following grounds for breaking an engagement is fault or justified? (1) The parties have nothing in common; (2) one party cannot stand prospective in-laws; (3) a minor child of one of the parties is hostile to and will not accept the other party; (4) an adult child of one of the parties will not accept the other party; (5) the parties’ pets do not get along; (6) a party was too hasty in proposing or accepting the proposal; (7) the engagement was a rebound situation which is now regretted; (8) one party has untidy habits that irritate the other; or (9) the parties have religious differences. The list could be endless.” As a result, the test for ownership is simple. Any transition of ownership is contingent only on the marriage of the couple and other factors are not given any consideration.
Now that we know that the giver is entitled to the return of the ring after the engagement is ended, the next question is how might the giver secure the return of the ring? If non-legal options fail (which include a straightforward request for the return of the ring), then the giver will need to file a replevin action against the receiver. Replevin is a legal action that dates back to old English law. Replevin is utilized to recover the possession of personal property (also known as “chattels”) wrongfully in the possession of other people. To initiate a replevin action, the giver will need to sue the receiver by filing a complaint that provides a description of the engagement ring, its value, its location (if known), and the “material facts upon which [the] claim is based,” which will include, at minimum, the circumstances of the proposal and the fact that the engagement was terminated prior to a marriage. In Pennsylvania, within the replevin action, under certain circumstances, the giver may petition the court to have the sheriff seize the engagement ring during the pendency of the action and the ring will either be returned to the giver or held by the sheriff until the matter is resolved. Normally, to secure a seizure prior to the conclusion of the case, the giver will need to demonstrate that the value of the engagement ring and the giver’s interest in the ring will be adversely affected by the continued possession and use of the receiver. Or, in the alternative, the giver must show that the receiver (or any other person in possession of the engagement ring) will conceal, dispose, encumber, or waste the engagement ring, or that person may remove it from the county where the action was filed. Ultimately, the court will determine who is entitled to possession of the engagement ring and may award special damages depending on the circumstances of the case.
On the other hand, once the parties wed, the condition is satisfied and ownership is transferred. Absent a prenuptial agreement that states otherwise, the engagement ring becomes a “gift between spouses,” and, as a result, according to 23 Pa.C.S. § 3501(a)(3), is marital property now owned by both spouses. The giver is no longer automatically entitled to the return of the ring. Rather, if the parties later divorce, then, absent an agreement between the parties, the ring will be subject to equitable distribution by the court. There are no guarantees in equitable distribution and the court may consider and weigh a variety of factors, including the length of the marriage, in determining how to award ownership of the engagement ring. Under certain circumstances, the giver may actually need to buy-out the receiver in order to secure its return. As a result, to avoid later complications, it is prudent to address an engagement ring that is a family heirloom, like the one described in the beginning of this article, or of substantial value, in a prenuptial agreement.
Lastly, it must be noted that it is unclear how the Lindh case may apply to same-sex couples because, at the time of the writing of this article, same-sex marriages are prohibited in Pennsylvania. While we might anticipate that the law of conditional gifts would still apply to same-sex couples, the giver should be particularly cognizant of the circumstances of the proposal. It may be prudent for the giver of the engagement ring to be clear that the ring is offered contingent on a particular event occurring (marriage, civil union, individualized ceremony, etc.). Otherwise, a ring simply offered or a ring offered in exchange for a promise to “spend the rest of our lives together” may fail to establish a conditional gift and result in an absolute transfer of the ownership of the ring. Likewise, because same-sex couples are not presently subject to the marital laws of Pennsylvania or equitable distribution, the giver of the engagement ring should understand that once the condition is satisfied (for example, if the condition is to travel to New York or New Jersey and be married in that state, and that event occurs), then the transfer of ownership to the receiver will likely be absolute and not shared jointly as “marital property.”
If you have any questions regarding engagement rings, you should contact an experienced and knowledgeable attorney for a consultation. An experienced and knowledgeable attorney can assist with safeguarding an engagement ring or securing its return through either a replevin action or equitable distribution. Such protective measures are prudent, and may be invaluable, especially if the engagement ring is a family heirloom.