Paul and Janet had been dating for about two years when Paul proposed marriage. Janet agreed and a wedding date was set. As a sign of their engagement, Paul gave her a family heirloom, an 8-carat pure white diamond on a white gold band. Three months later, Paul thought better of it and broke the engagement. He then requested the return of the ring. Janet refused, claiming it was Paul fault for breaking off the engagement and she had a right to keep it. Who wins? Paul does. Our firm won the lead case on this issue, Gagliardo v. Clemente, a New York Appellate Division, 1st Department case from 1992. The court held that giving an engagement ring is only a conditional gift given in contemplation of marriage. If the marriage does not go through, the gift is not completed and the ring must be returned. It is wholly irrelevant as to who caused the breakup. Just as New York has a no-fault divorce law, there is a no-fault engagement ring rule. The rule is the same in New Jersey according to Aronow v. Silver, a 1987 NJ Superior Court case. What if the man is already married and gave the engagement ring upon her promise to marry him when and if he got a divorce from his current marriage?
Here, the woman wins and keeps the ring even if she immediately breaks off the engagement. The reason is that an agreement to marry under such circumstances is void against public policy and is not made right by the man's promise to divorce. Even after marriage, the ring might have to be returned. Joel and Debra were engaged to get married. Joel, apparently being rich and foolish, gave Debra a $100,000 six-carat diamond engagement ring. Ten days later, they were married in an Orthodox Jewish wedding ceremony. However, apparently unknown to Joel, Debra was still legally married to Moishe. She had obtained a Jewish divorce, a “get”, from Moishe 4 years before but failed to follow up and get a civil divorce from him until one year after her marriage to Joel. The court held that since Debra was still legally married to Moishe at the time, her marriage to Joel was void from the beginning. If Joeal did not know of her marriage to Moishe at the time of his marriage, he can get the ring back. However, if he knew of it (considering the “get” as good enough for him), then he was precluded from recovering it, since he was no longer an innocent party.
Kim Steven Juhase, ESQ.
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