By Evan Compton
Picture the movie breakup where the once soon-to-be-wife slowly and dramatically hands over the engagement ring, thus, dashing the dreams of happily-ever-after. Except we all know real life rarely reflects the movies.
In real life, whether it’s yourself or your ex, no one may think about the ring when things are ending. This poses the question: who gets the ring? Is it a gift? Does the person have to give it back? The question is actually fairly straightforward.
When talking about engagement rings, we’re only tangentially in the realm of domestic relations. What we’re really looking at is something known as replevin law. Replevin law helps a person recover personal property that is being wrongfully or unlawfully detained. Or, if the shoe is on the other foot, to defeat that claim to retain possession of an engagement ring.
It is well-established Illinois precedent that an engagement ring is a gift in contemplation of marriage. This gift is conditional on the subsequent marriage. The party who fails to perform the condition has no right to the property. See Harris v. Davis, 139 Ill.App.3d 1046, 1048 (1986). Seems simple enough, but how to do we determine the failure to perform?
For that analysis we turn to Carroll v. Curry, Ill.App.3d 511 (2009). The Carroll Court had to determine who had superior rights to an engagement ring where the Defendant ended the relationship, but only due to the infidelity of the Plaintiff. So, in this instance, the Plaintiff was “at fault” for the relationship ending, but was not the one who terminated it. The Court ultimately decided it was not their place to make fault-based analyses to determine the underlying reason why a relationship ended. To quote the opinion, the Carroll Court was concerned courts “would be asked to consider whether and to what extent a person’s sudden weight gain, change in financial status, or adoption of different ideologies constituted fault sufficient to justify breaking an engagement and to justify retaining possession of the property in question.”
So, we’ve established the Court won’t dive into the nitty gritty dirty details of your relationship. Then how do they figure this out? In a case I was a part of on the trial level (Liceaga v. Baez, 2019 Il App (1st) 181170), we argued that an objective standard was set out in the Curry case. The Court may not care about the why, but they do care about the who. In this case, the Plaintiff plainly and objectively stated that he was the one who ended the relationship. Remember that the party who fails to perform loses their rights and that is precisely what the Court ruled.
And to cover all of our grounds, if the breakup is mutual, the gift returns to the donor. See Vann v. Vehrs, 260 Ill.App.3d 648.