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The Law of Engagement Rings (with a side of ring-flingers and Oregon cows)

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Is the engagement ring yours, mine, ours, or theirs (e.g. creditors or charities)?

This post is for those who want or need to resolve the Engagement Ring Dispute by delving into the Law (mostly Oregon), which, given what I’ve unearthed, isn’t that far from simply asking oneself, “What would Miss Manners (or Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, or even George Mitchell) Do?”

Warning: Do not expect An Answer, at least not a simple one. But you may find your own answer in all of this (or at least another view of the “marriage catastrophe” a la Zorba).

Engagement Ring Law seems, unlike a lot of law, more like the Law of the High Road, the Side of the Angels, the Cast Your Bread Upon the Waters “law” and the Code of the Woosters (what, what). Maybe we want to keep it that way.

Saying there isn’t a lot of published or authoritative information on the Oregon law of engagement rings is a gross understatement. However, we did dig up some possibly useful information on our own and from talking to Oregon attorneys. Some of this may be similar to the Engagement Ring Law (so to speak) of other states.

Engagement rings can be many things, apart from declarations of love. They can be gifts, promises, contracts, marital property, displays of wealth or questionable judgment, or a not entirely principled way to keep the alimony payments current without quite having to keep living the solitary life.

Here are some of the engagement ring reference questions that are asked:

1) Before a marriage, does an engagement ring have to be returned if the engagement is broken off? If not, are there any circumstances where it does have to be returned? For example, does it matter who broke off the engagement?

2) What if the ring is a family heirloom?

3) Who does it belong to during the marriage? (E.g. can it be sold, with impunity, to pay a divorce attorney?)

4) Who does it belong to after the marriage ends? One party, both?

5) If an Oregon engagement ring ownership dispute makes its way into Small Claims Court (SCC) rather than Circuit Court, might the SCC’s greater “court of equity” powers lead to a different result (assuming of course the value is less than $10,000) from outcomes in “regular” or trial courts.

Engagement Ring Legal Research So Far:

When someone asks us (in the law library) about Who Gets the Engagement Ring, we usually preface our responses to our non-attorney patrons with those timeless words “it depends.”

Other than In re Domestic Partnership of Ewing 206 Ore. App. 478 (A124309) (2006), there is not much case law. Alas.

Judges in Oregon have not taken the opportunity to wax poetically on Oregon Engagement Ring Law, but that doesn’t mean you leave empty-handed, or fingered.

Oregon appellate courts (as opposed to trial courts) are mostly silent on the subject of engagement rings, but inside and outside Oregon it appears that an engagement ring is by its nature a conditional gift, based on the mutual contemplation of marriage. If the marriage does not take place, the condition fails, and the gift must be returned. (Judges can (but don’t have to) look at case law outside their own states for how other courts have resolved some disputes, but they are not required to follow any law other than their own state’s laws. See, e.g. mandatory authority.)

Some cases take “fault” into consideration, but most courts stayed away from making that determination and applied a contract theory. There seems to be some authority in Oregon that once the marriage has taken place, the engagement ring belongs to the wife—e.g., the condition was met.

More from lawyers:

1) In some states, you may need to give the ring back because it’s not a gift. It is consideration given for a promise to marry – it creates the necessary “consideration” for a contract between the parties. If the contract is broken, the consideration must be returned.

2) Another lawyer tells us about rules of etiquette, those that “dictate that if you are the one who breaks up with the other, you have to return your engagement ring to her/him and not ask for anything in return. If, on the other hand, you are the one broken up WITH, you get to keep the ring, sell it, etc., without giving anything to your ex for it.”

3) As I recall, the old contracts adage “if marriage doesn’t happen, the consideration fails” I think has been changed in some states by whose fault it was. I.e., if the man cheated and the woman broke it off, should she have to give the ring back? Perhaps the consideration on his side failed – that he would be a faithful husband.

4) And, as one of our attorneys says so eloquently spoke to us about the nexus between law and manners:

This is actually consistent with my understanding of the rules of etiquette. I believe the consensus among etiquette experts (Miss Manners, Emily Post, etc.) is that one returns the ring when the engagement is broken, no matter who broke it. The general idea is that a lady wouldn’t want anything more to do with the symbol of a love that has proved to be something less than she thought it was…or a gentleman who has proved to be less than she thought he was. If memory serves, in those situations in which the gentleman has behaved particularly badly, I believe that “returning it” can properly be defined to include flinging it at him….”

On the Oregon Small Claims Court front, keep in mind that Oregon Small Claims Courts are courts of equity and the judges have more room to work with parties on coming to an agreement than they would have in Oregon Circuit Court, where all the rules of court must be observed.

A Small Claims Court judge or mediator could consider whose “fault” the break up was. If it was no one’s fault, the judge could order that the ring be returned. But an heirloom would likely still go back to the family, regardless of fault.

How about that Wedding Ring?

Take a look at Mallorie v. Mallorie, A120473. (In how many cases do you see the phrase “a large number of cows” in the same sentence with “wife’s wedding ring”, and also containing the memorable line, “[b]ut once the cow’s dead, she’s dead”?)

“… wife appeals and husband cross-appeals from a judgment of dissolution of marriage. Wife asserts that the trial court erred in making its award of spousal support, in treating a large number of cows leased to the family’s dairy as husband’s premarital assets, in treating wife’s wedding ring as a marital asset, and in taking into consideration certain alleged tax ramifications of a business arrangement with the family’s dairy in setting wife’s spousal support and in valuing husband’s cows.” (Read the full case.)

Or course, sometimes you may not want the rings back. See Ash v. State, 139 Tex. Crim. 420, 141 S.W.2d 341 (1940): “… The officers were investigating the loss of two diamond rings. The officers received information that defendant was trying to dispose of the rings at a pawn shop. The officers saw defendant place an object in his mouth, which they took to be the rings. Defendant refused to open his mouth, and the officers observed defendant swallow….”