This is a question that is often asked of Family Lawyers. Many people believe the answer is dicated by convention, tradition and morality, rather than by the law. So it may surprise you that it is an issue that has been considered by the Supreme Court of New South Wales.
An engagement ring has been tranditionally seen by the law as a ‘conditional gift’.That is, it is implied that the ring can be kept by the woman provided the wedding takes place.
In a case before the Supreme Court, the groom to be asked to have the ring returned to him following a breakdown of the relationship. The engagement ring in question had a value of $15,250.00 and the wedding had been called off by the bride to be 10 days after the engagement party, where she had been gifted the ring.
The circumstances were that the groom to be did not want to end the relationship, but the bride to be rejected the proposal of marriage and the ring was eventually thown in the garbage bin by the bride to be.
In this case the Judge commented that “a party cannot be forced to take or accept a gift but upon rejecting the gift she became a bailee of that item for as long as she had it in her control”. As such the bride to be had a duty to properly take care of the ring until it’s proper return to the groom to be. She was not entitled to throw the ring in the garbage bin, without firstly giving the groom to be a reasonable opportunity to collect the ring.
The Judge found that as the bride to be had disposed of the ring and was not in a position to return it to the groom, she was ordered to pay him the monetary equivelant of the ring’s value – $15,250.00.
In applying the relevant law to the case, the Judge applied an old english case where the following principles of law had been established –
- If a woman who has received a ring in contemplation of marriage refused to fulfil the conditions of the gift, she must return it;
- If a man has, without a recognised legal justification, refuses to carry out his promise of marriage, he cannot demand the return of an engagement ring;
- If the engagement to marry is disolved by mutual consent, then in the absence of agreement to the contrary the engagement ring and like gifts must be returned by each party to the other.
Examples of ‘legal justification’ referred to in the case law include circumstances where one party is having a steady and sexual relationship with another, or where acts of violence have been committed against the other party.
The Judge also commented that ‘by the slow growth of decisions, the promise of marriage is fixed and many of the characteristics of a commercial bargain. It is governed largely by the principals of law applicable to ordinary contracts….If an engagement ring be regarded as a pledge or deposit for the fulfillment of a contract, a person who refuses to carry out a bargain will lose his deposit’.
If you would like more information on this topic, or any other Family Law issue, call Ruth Single on 02 43247699 for a free confidential chat.