The engagement is off, but what about the ring?

We have been talking about heart balm laws and the General Assembly’s decision to repeal them as part of the family law overhaul that went into effect on Jan. 1. Until those laws were repealed, they limited the types of damages someone could pursue for a broken engagement. And make no mistake: According to Westlaw, the courts were deciding cases based on the Breach of Promise Act in 2015.

The disposition of the ring may at one time have fallen into the heart balm category — perhaps as part of a woman’s compensation for the broken engagement? After all, most heart balm laws assumed the woman would be suing.

More likely, the ring would be considered a gift made in contemplation of marriage. Contract law, not marital law, would govern the suit: You agree to marry me, so I give you this ring to seal the deal. You change your mind, I get the ring back. It’s a little like putting a deposit down on a hotel room. Cancel before noon on the date of arrival, and the hotel does not charge you.

Illinois sees it that way, at least. The key is who breaks the engagement: If the person who gave the ring breaks it off, the person receiving gets to keep the ring. If the person who got the ring changes his or her mind, it goes back to the donor (a legal term for “gift giver”).

If the break-up is mutual, the donor can sue (a “replevin” action) for return of the ring. Considering the tenor of the new marriage and dissolution of marriage laws, though, the courts might prefer that the parties negotiate the matter.

Of course, not all gifts in contemplation of marriage are rings. If the donor gave a different kind of jewelry — a pair of Tiffany engagement earrings, for example? — the same rules would probably hold. The point is that the gift was made on the condition of marriage.

In one notable case, an Illinois court decided that a dog was such a gift, confirming what many animal lovers believe: A pet has a price equal to, if not far above, rubies.


Illinois Law and Practice, Vol. 20 § 11, Gifts, February 2016 update, via Westlaw

Bible, Proverbs 31:10, “Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies.”

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