THE LORD OF THE ENGAGEMENT RINGS; WHO KEEPS THE RING WHEN THE MARRIAGE IS CALLED OFF

rachel-getting-married-trailer-title-stillIn  a no-fault state the man always keeps the engagement ring no matter who breaks off the engagement. But in a fault state the man only keeps the ring if the cancelled wedding plans are mutual, or cancelled by the woman without justification, (i.e. it wasn’t the man’s fault) or if the man breaks it off with justification (i.e. it was the woman’s fault.)  Determining whose fault it is could be interesting. In the Runaway Bride scenario obviously the bride would be at fault. Unless of course she found out that the night before the man slept with the Maid of Honor. Or the stripper at the bachelor party. And the scenarios are endless. So as not to offend gay people the rules applied to heterosexual engagements would be the same for gay engagements in those states where gay marriages are legal.

 

Replevin — Gifts — Engagement ring — Appeal of order determining that plaintiff is not entitled to recover engagement ring from former fiancee because ring was conditional gift and, by unilaterally breaking off engagement, plaintiff made fiancee’s performance of condition impossible and waived condition — Trial court did not err in finding that plaintiff lacked legal justification for terminating engagement in determining rightful disposition of ring since traditional fault analysis inherent in conditional gift analysis has not been abandoned and is still law in Florida

ALAN ARCHAMBAULT, Appellant, v. DONNA GLICK, Appellee. Circuit Court, 17th Judicial Circuit (Appellate) in and for Broward County. Case No. 02-21540 (08). February 24, 2004. J. Leonard Fleet, Judge.

 

OPINION OF THE COURT

THIS CAUSE comes before the court on appellant, ALAN ARCHAMBAULT, appeal of the final order of the, and the court having consider the same, having heard arguments of counsel, and otherwise being duly advised in the premises, finds and decides the following:

In early March 2000, Appellant, Alan Archambault, and Appellee, Donna Glick, were engaged to be married. Archambault presented Appellee with a $5,000 ring, a symbol of their engagement. At the time the parties lived in separate residences. Appellee sold her home, moved in with Appellant,1 but less than two months later Archambault terminated the engagement. Appellant requested the return of the ring; Appellee refused to return the engagement ring. Archambault filed suit for replevin, conversion, unjust enrichment, and civil theft.

At trial, the judge held Archambault was not entitled to the ring, because he was found to be “at-fault” for breaking off the engagement. The trial court expressly found the ring was a conditional gift; further, the breakup was Archambault’s unilateral decision. Because the ring was a conditional gift, Archambault made Glick’s performance impossible. Therefore, the condition was waived. This appeal followed.

Appellant argues the trial court erred by applying the holding in the Gill v. Shively, 320 So. 2d 415 (Fla. 4th DCA 1975). Appellant challenges the trial court’s reasoning. The trial court construed Shively and Florida’s gift jurisprudence to require a finding of “fault” in the disposition of engagement ring cases.2 Appellant advocates the adoption of the so-called no-fault theory within the context of engagement ring litigation. The question on appeal is whether there should be any difference in result when the donor breaks off the engagement. The standard of review for trial court interpretations of law is de novo. See generally Pichowski v. Florida Gas. Transmission Co., 857 So. 2d 219 (Fla. 2d DCA 2003). The court finds the trial court did not err in applying Shively.

Contrary to Archambault’s assertion, Florida law provides engagement rings may be returned to the donor if the engagement is called off by mutual consent or by the donee. 28 Fla. Jur. 2d Gifts § 18; 28 Am. Jur. 2d Gifts § 75, fn. 15. The few cases remotely considering the issue suggest as much. The oft-cited Gill v. Shively, supra, supports this proposition. The Shively court held a cause of action existed for the return of an engagement ring when it is given in contemplation of, or on the condition of, the consummation of marriage. The Shively court does not establish an express adoption of a fault based principle. In essence, the court’s language merely recognizes the instant type of case is not proscribed by the so-called Heart-Balm statute.3

Since its publication the Shively holding has endured rather consistent treatment; the foregoing applications illustrate the trial court’s reliance on Shively is not erroneous. Justice Farmer’s dissent in Schiller v. Miller, 621 So. 2d 481, 484, (Fla. 4th DCA 1993), reinforced the conclusion the Shively case permits a replevin cause of action for the return of an engagement ring. In Marsh v. Marsh. 339 So. 2d 433, 437, fn. 14, (Fla. 5th DCA 1981),4 Judge Cowart acknowledges Shively supports the conditional nature of an engagement ring. Moreover, a federal bankruptcy case, Matter of Stage, 85 B.R. 880 (Bankr. M.D.Fla. 1988), expressly applies as Florida law, citing Shively, the principle the donor may recover the engagement ring when the engagement is terminated either mutually or by the donee.5

The trial court did not err when it applied an element of “justification” for the termination under Florida law. Florida Jurisprudence 2d, Gifts § 18, shows finding justification for the break up has been a premise in the determination of the rightful disposition of the engagement ring. Here, the trial court’s finding that Archambault lacked justification reveals no error in reasoning. The trial court’s attempt to establish precedental symmetry is supportable under Florida law. Under the conventional application of Shively, courts do consider the cause and the party committing the breakup, and an unjustified breakup displaces entitlement to the engagement ring. In dicta within his Schiller dissent, Judge Farmer theorizes about Shively, “Our decision was premised on the idea that an engagement ring is a conditional gift, one that is dependent as Judge Downey noted on a voyage on the sea of matrimony. If the voyage never gets underway, then the gift is never perfected, and the jilted suitor may seek its return by the traditional legal remedy of replevin.” Schiller at 484.

At trial the trial judge found Archambault lacked “legal justification.” (T. 139). The trial judge stated, “If there was wrongful conduct by [Glick] that resulted in the termination, then the ruling would be different, but there wasn’t really any wrongful conduct on behalf of anybody.” (T. 140-1). The trial court could not discern a justification traditionally warranting a breakup; thus, the trial court determined Archambault lacked a basis for recovering a conditional gift when his conduct disabled the donee from performance.6 The court merely sought to fulfill its obligation to find justification, which is a required element derived from the rules of conditional gifts and the common application of Shively. Therefore, the trial court did not err.

Nevertheless, Archambault asserts to change Florida law by adopting the so-called no-fault principle in engagement ring jurisprudence. See, e.g., Lindh v. Surman, 742 A.2d 643 (Pa. 1999); Vigil v. Haber, 888 P.2d 455 (N.M. 1994); Aronow v. Silver, 538 A.2d 851 (N.J.Super.Ch. 1987); 44 ALR 5th 1, § 6 (1996). Proponents of the “no-fault” approach argue a party should not be penalized for ending a doomed relationship and the underlying public policy favoring no-fault divorces similarly should be applied to engagements. The thrust of the trend is to remove the trial court’s value judgments, which necessarily pits the realities of the relationship against the judge’s own values. The court in Aronow v. Silver, 538 A.2d 851, 854 (N.J.Super.Ch. 1987), captured the natural conflict,

What fact justifies the breaking of an engagement? The absence of a sense of humor? Differing musical tastes? Differing political views? The painfully-learned fact is that marriages are made on earth, not in heaven. They must be approached with intelligent care and should not happen without a decent assurance of success. When either party lacks that assurance, for whatever reason, the engagement should be broken. No justification is needed.

Further, in Heinman v. Parrish, 942 P.2d 631, 637 (Kan. 1997), the court surmised,

What is fault or the unjustifiable calling off of an engagement? By way of illustration, should courts be asked to determine which of the following grounds for breaking an engagement is fault or justified? (1) The parties have nothing in common; (2) one party cannot stand prospective in-laws; (3) a minor child of one of the parties is hostile to and will not accept the other party; (4) an adult child of one of the parties will not accept the other party; (5) the parties’ pets do not get along; (6) a party was too hasty in proposing or accepting the proposal; (7) the engagement was a rebound situation which is now regretted; (8) one party has untidy habits that irritate the other; or (9) the parties’ have religious differences. The list could be endless.

The no-fault approach is split and suffers some intuitive disadvantages. In some jurisdictions, gifts given in contemplation of marriage should be returned because whether the donor or the donee breaks off the engagement is immaterial since the condition itself is never realized. See Lindh, 742 A.2d 643; Heinman, 942 P.2d 631; Vigil, 88 P.2d 455; Aronow, 538 A.2d 851. There are jurisdictions construing all gifts given in contemplation of marriage as irrevocable inter vivos gifts. See Albinger v. Harris, 48 P.3d 711 (Mont. 2002). The Albinger court did not follow the common approach to construe an engagement ring as implicitly conditional. The Albinger court reasoned engagement rings are given in consideration for the promise to marry; a contract is formed but the “Anti-Heart balm”7 statutes prohibit enforcement of the contract. Id. at 720.

The traditional fault analysis inherent in the conditional gift analysis has not been abandoned. See, e.g., Curtis v. Anderson, 106 S.W.3d 251 (Tex. App. 2003); Spinnell v. Quigley, 785 P.2d 1149 (Wash. Ct. App. 1990). This is still the law in Florida and the trial court has not been shown to be in error.

Accordingly, for the reasons stated herein, the judgment of the trial court is AFFIRMED.

__________________

1The trial court did not find an “actual contractual agreement” requiring Glick’s move, or for the related expenses, as a condition of marriage.

2The specific legal issues brought by Appellant are:

I. Was the trial judge’s reliance upon Gill v. Shively, 320 So. 2d 415 (Fla. 4th DCA 1975), misapplied, and thus reversible error?

II. Was the trial judge’s application of a “fault doctrine” in deciding this case appropriate under the Florida law, or was it reversible error?

III. Was the trial judge’s determination that Plaintiff lacked “justification” for the termination of the engagement, a correct application of Florida law, or was it reversible error?

IV. Was the trial judge’s refusal to apply a “no-fault doctrine,” in deciding the issues raised in this litigation, reversible error?

3Fla. Stat. § 771.01

4Decision overruled on other grounds Marsh v. Marsh, 419 So. 2d 629 (Fla. 1982).

5Several cases and other authority within this context of gifts jurisprudence from around the country represent the proposition of a fault based determination to be within Florida law. E.g., Elaine Marie Tomko, Annotation, Rights In Respect of Engagement and Courtship Presents When Marriage Does Not Ensue, 44 A.L.R.5th 1 (1996).

6The law of conditional gifts with respect to wedding and engagement gifts is well set forth in the Restatement of Restitution § 58:

A person who has conferred a benefit upon another, manifesting that he does not expect compensation therefor, is not entitled to restitution merely because his expectation that an existing relation will continue or that a future relation will come into existence is not realized, unless the conferring of the benefit is conditioned thereon.

Comments & Illustrations sub. (c): . . .Gifts made in anticipation of marriage are not ordinarily expressed to be conditional and, although there is an engagement to marry, if the marriage fails to occur without the fault of the donee, normally the gift cannot be recovered. . . If there is an engagement to marry and the donee, having received the gift without fraud, later wrongfully breaks the promise of marriage, the donor is entitled to restitution if the gift is an engagement ring, a family heirloom or other similar thing intimately connected with the marriage, but not if the gift is one of money intended to be used by the donee before the marriage. . . .

7E.g., Fla. Stat. § 771.01

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