Can a bride who calls off the wedding keep the ring?

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May 10 2010 9:43 AM

For This Ring I Thee Sue

If the bride calls off the engagement, can she keep her diamond?

See our Magnum Photos gallery of rings.

Wedding rings.

Peak wedding season is right around the corner. This means teary eyes and organza bows. Alas, however, more than one cold-footed former beloved will take off before the big day. When engaged couples have second thoughts before the wedding, or when a groom is stood up in his morning coat, who keeps the engagement ring? Miss Manners has an answer: "laws of etiquette absolutely require you to return an engagement ring when the engagement is broken, for whatever reason, and by however nasty a fiancé." What happens, however, when a couple does take a diamond stalemate to court?    

Christopher Reinhold of Staten Island says the diamond ring he gave to Collette DiPierro, who broke off their engagement in September 2009 after four months and growing doubts, is rightfully his. He has sued her to get it back. In his New York state-court suit, Reinhold says that he gave DiPierro the ring upon her promise to marry him. Since she broke off the engagement and the marriage did not take place, the deal, he says, is off. But DiPierro says that because Reinhold proposed on her birthday, the $17,500 ring was a gift, not a token symbolizing a promise to marry. So she can keep it. Or, actually, spend it: Neither Reinhold nor DiPierro claims sentimental attachment; both would be happy with the ring's cash value.   

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Contract law takes the view that the exchange of a ring for the promise to wed constitutes a binding contract. It's not the most romantic narrative, but in a court fight over a diamond, romance already lies in the dust. Essential to the formation of a contract between two people are an offer from one ("Will you marry me?"), an acceptance from the other ("Oh, my God, I have to call my mother. I mean, yes!"), and consideration from both (the ring from him, the promise from her). This last element, also known as a "bargained-for exchange," requires that each person give up something of value to support the contract. Without the exchange of consideration, there is no contract.

But a ring handed over just because a beau thinks it will complement his lady's finger is not a symbol of a binding agreement. It's a gift. Gifts, generally, are theoretically unconditional, and recipients don't have an obligation to offer anything in return. (Gracious appreciation is a social obligation and is uninteresting as far as the law is concerned.)

This is where DiPierro's "birthday gift" argument comes in. But it's shaky: Some courts, including in New York, do typically treat rings as a type of gift—a particular type. Unfortunately for DiPierro, though, engagement rings are viewed not the way other lavish presents are but as conditional gifts. They're given on the "condition subsequent" that marriage will take place. Once the groom has smashed the glass, the condition on which the gift is made has been met (at which point it "vests"). The gift is then complete—and then the ring belongs to the bride (or, in some courts, it becomes marital property, divided in the event of divorce) even if the couple splits up over rum cocktails in Virgin Gorda two days later.

How much does it matter, for Reinhold's suit, that it was DiPierro who canceled the wedding? DiPierro can't argue that Reinhold owes her the ring because he failed to keep his part of the bargain, since she's the one who ended things. She won't win an argument grounded in contract (since if there was a contract between the two of them, she's the one who broke it, and she'll lose). This is why she has to go with the gift angle, even though it's probably a loser, too: Not much supports her claim that the ring was a gift with no strings attached.

But if a groom cancels the wedding and the bride wants to keep the ring, she could have a better shot. She could say that in exchange for the ring, she gave her fiance an exclusive option to marry her. She took herself off the dating market, granting him the security of knowing she's his to marry if he so chooses. It's like an option to an agent on making a movie out of a book. The author gets to keep the option money when the film goes nowhere.

Of course, the real answer here comes down to sense and etiquette, not legal precedent or theory. Are you really going to try to keep your ex-fiance's great-grandmother's ring, after it graced your hand for three months? And are you really going to ask your ex to return a diamond you bought her if you're the one whose "evening jogs" took place at Scores? Colette DiPierro should just return the ring. And Christopher Reinhold should sell off the side stones and take a vacation.

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