If you’re looking for a novel to exacerbate any insecurities you may have in your marriage, then look no further than Elin Hilderbrand’s Beautiful Day.* One couple is on the eve of a divorce, another has reconciled after a bitter breakup, while another is in the throes of infidelity. In the midst of all of this, preschool teacher Jenna Carmichael and banker Stuart Graham decide to say “I do” in front of their friends and family in Nantucket under the watchful eye of Jenna’s cynical older sister Margot, who’s secretly sleeping with her father’s law partner.
To make matters worse for all involved (whether or not they see it that way), the wedding itself is micromanaged from beyond the grave by Jenna’s late mother, who wrote every last detail down to the color of the linens in a notebook before she died.
What ensues is the wedding weekend from hell. I think we’ve all been to one of those—hopefully not as one of the betrothed!
These are the marriages we wish had broken off during the engagement, if not before.
In Beautiful Day, we learn about a man who “proposed, gave [his fiancé] his great-grandmother’s ring, [and] broke it off five weeks later,” making his former fiancé “so mad that she never gave the ring back.” It was a Tiffany cut 2.5 carat diamond in a platinum setting, a tremendous loss to the giver’s family for both its monetary and sentimental value. However, the receiver of the ring was not the one to break off the engagement, and whether she must return to the ring as a legal matter depends on the laws of her state.
Generally speaking, a gift is irrevocable. You can’t take it back, but romantic gifts like engagement rings are often exceptions to this rule. Many courts have decided that they are conditional gifts: the ring was given on the condition that the receiving party would marry the giver. In these cases, the analysis focuses on whether the gift was given in the context of a marriage proposal, and not just as a gift for being a girlfriend/boyfriend.
In Lindh v. Surman, 560 Pa. 1 (1999), Pennsylvania’s highest court reiterated the conditional gift principle, quoting Pavlicic v. Vogtsberger, 390 Pa. 502, 136 A.2d 127 (1957):
A gift given by a man to a woman on condition that she embark on the sea of matrimony with him is no different from a gift based on the condition that the donee sail on any other sea. If, after receiving the provisional gift, the donee refuses to leave the harbor — if the anchor of contractual performance sticks in the sands of irresolution and procrastination — the gift must be restored to the donor. Id. at 507, 136 A.2d at 130.
In Pennsylvania, fault is not a factor. The giver of the ring is entitled to its return even if the giver broke off the engagement. California, however, has adopted a different rule, by which the giver loses the right to the ring if s/he was the one to refuse to go through with the marriage. Cal. Civ. Code § 1590.
In Hilderbrand’s Beautiful Day, the applicable law would probably be that of North Carolina, where the doomed couple was from. Though there are sources on the Internet asserting that North Carolina follows a conditional gift rule like Pennsylvania’s, there does not seem to be a published court decision on point. Recently, the Journal of Business & Intellectual Property Law at Wake Forest Law School speculated on how the North Carolina courts would rule in an engagement ring case, concluding:
If the donor gives the gift after the engagement, courts usually consider this a conditional gift. Implied conditions, however, are recognized in North Carolina, and fault may be also considered. In other words, expect a very fact-intensive decision until binding precedent has been established.
In Beautiful Day, which only deals with the ring briefly, the giver of the engagement ring contacted an attorney. Having found his legal options limited, he and his family ultimately decided against pursuing litigation for political reasons. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to think about how the issue would’ve played out in fiction until the courts finally establish a rule in real life.
In my opinion, the giver of the ring may have been the one to break off the engagement, but it was his family’s heirloom and giving the gift was conditioned on a marriage that never happened. The person who received the ring—as “wronged” as she may have been—should’ve given the ring back.
*Mr. A.M.B. laughed when he read the first line.