Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Can I Get My Engagement Ring Back in New York?

Last week, the Nassau County District Court became the latest New York court to deal with the issue of the return of an engagement ring. In that case, the issue turned on whether the ring was given in contemplation of the parties’ marriage (in which case it would be returned to Plaintiff) or was it a complete gift (in which case the Defendant gets to keep it).  In this case, the Court found that the ring was a complete gift and Plaintiff was not entitled to the return of the ring.

The Plaintiff and Defendant dated on and off for nearly 10 years and had a child together. After their son was born, they moved in together, but did not discuss marriage at the outset. They lived together until an act of domestic violence caused Plaintiff to leave the apartment they shared.

In 2010, they went to Manhattan to look at diamond rings, and thus began the analysis of how the ring should be classified. The Defendant put down $1,000 in cash for the diamond and after it was mounted, she paid $4,500 for the ring and Plaintiff paid $4,700 for the ring. After they bought the ring, Plaintiff gave the ring to Defendant, through their son, at Rockefeller Center. According to Defendant, she wore the ring from time to time and when people asked if it was an engagement ring, she would say no, because she was never asked to marry Plaintiff.

Plaintiff had been married two times before and told Defendant that he did not want to get married again. During the hearing, Plaintiff testified that the money utilized for the ring was his money that he had given to Defendant, including the $1,000 initial payment. Plaintiff testified that he had proposed at Rockefeller Center, however Defendant said that the ring was given to her for being a good mother to their son.

The return of a gift made in contemplation of marriage is covered by Civil Rights Law Section 80-b,

Nothing in this article contained shall be construed to bar a right of action for the recovery of a chattel, the return of money or securities, or the value thereof at the time of such transfer, or the rescission of a deed to real property when the sole consideration for the transfer of the chattel, money or securities or real property was a contemplated marriage which has not occurred, and the court may, if in its discretion justice so requires, (1) award the defendant a lien upon the chattel, securities or real property for monies expended in connection therewith or improvements made thereto, (2) deny judgment for the recovery of the chattel or securities or for rescission of the deed and award money damages in lieu thereof.

The Court also recounted prior holdings of New York courts regarding the return of engagement rings,
The court starts with application of the traditional principle of New York law holding that an engagement ring is the property of the male donor when an engagement is terminated (see, Gagliardo v. Clemente, 180 AD2d 551, 580 NYS2d 278 [1st Dept 1992]; 11 NY Prac New York Law of Domestic Relations § 4:4, Courtship: Engagement Rings [2002], "Even prior to the enactment of the anti-heart balm legislation," cases held that "[t]he donee of the ring receives, at the time of the gift, only the right of possession. Firm ownership passes only upon the performance of the mar-riage").
This rule applies only to a ring given as an engagement ring (id., "If there were reasons other than a contemplated marriage why the gift was given, such as part of a birthday or holiday celebration, the ring may not be subject to return. Where there is a genuine dispute as to the circumstances under which the ring was given, a trial is necessary to determine the facts"). See also Poupis v. Brown, 90 AD3d 881, 935 NYS2d 127 (4th Dept 2009) holding issues of fact existed as to whether the ring and the transfer of the interest in the West Islip property were given solely in contemplation of marriage.
After reviewing the facts and testimony, the Court found that the ring was a gift and was not given in contemplation of the parties’ marriage. The Court believed that the ring was given to Defendant for being a good mother and the invoice for the ring did not detail that the ring was an engagement ring. In its findings, the Court noted that the parties were already in a domestic partnership by the time the ring was given as a gift and pointed to the fact that no engagement announcement was sent out and no wedding venue had been reserved by the parties.

The text of the decision can be found here.

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