The Lawletter Vol 37 No 8
Jim Witt, Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group
Perhaps the most obvious legal question that arises when a couple break their engagement is whether the formerly prospective bride, assuming that she has received an engagement ring, is obligated to return it to the formerly prospective groom. A recent South Carolina appellate case, Campbell v. Robinson, 726 S.E.2d 221 (S.C. Ct. App. 2012), arose out of the broken engagement of Matthew Campbell and Ashley Robinson. Campbell shows that depending upon the couple's level of rancor, the broken engagement and the question as to ownership of the ring can lead to additional legal issues.
In the Campbell case, Campbell proposed and presented a ring to Robinson in December 2005. In a spring 2006 phone conversation, they agreed to postpone the wedding. The engagement was later canceled, and a dispute ensued over ownership of the ring. Campbell filed suit against Robinson, demanding a jury trial and seeking (1) declaratory judgment that he owned the ring and was entitled to the ring's return or its equivalent value; (2) damages for the ring's wrongful retention; and (3) monetary restitution for the benefit Robinson had received while possessing the ring. Robinson counterclaimed, based on Campbell's breach of promise to marry, arguing that she was entitled to damages for her prenuptial expenditures, mental anguish, and injury to health.
Robinson testified that the engagement had been terminated solely by Campbell's action and that after the engagement was canceled, she asked Campbell twice whether she should return the ring. She asserted that Campbell had told her that she could keep it. Campbell, in his testimony, denied ending the engagement by himself and contended that the cancellation had been mutual. He also denied telling Robinson that she could keep the ring. He further contended that Robinson had refused to give him the ring after he asked for its return.
The trial court held that (1) South Carolina has not abolished actions for breach of promise to marry, and (2) South Carolina courts hinge postengagement entitlement to the engagement ring upon who was "at fault" for the engagement's cancellation. Therefore, the trial court ruled that Campbell would be entitled to the return of the ring if Robinson was at fault in terminating the engagement. If Campbell was at fault, however, Robinson would be entitled to keep the ring, and if Campbell breached the promise to marry, Robinson could recover damages. The trial court rejected Campbell's argument that he could recover damages on his claims. The jury found that Campbell was responsible for the termination of the engagement and therefore could not regain possession of the ring. The jury also found that Robinson was not entitled to any damages for Campbell's breach of promise to marry.
The court of appeals first dealt with the question of whether South Carolina courts recognize a cause of action for breach of promise to marry. The court acknowledged that certain heart-balm actions had been abolished in South Carolina, Russo v. Sutton, 422 S.E.2d 750 (S.C. 1992) (the Supreme Court of South Carolina abolished the heart-balm action for alienation of affection), but observed that promise-to-marry actions have not been expressly abolished. Therefore, the court concluded that Robinson had set forth a valid cause of action for breach of contract to marry.
The court agreed with Campbell's contention that the trial court had erred in ruling that the ownership of the ring depended upon the assignment of fault in the termination of the engagement. Rather, the court held, the question of the right to the ring depended on the determination of whether there had been a completed gift of the ring. The court reasoned that the gift of an engagement ring is impliedly conditioned upon the marriage's taking place. Thus, until the condition of marriage is fulfilled, the attempted gift is unenforceable, and the ring must be returned to the donor upon the donor's request. The court held that the party challenging the conditional nature of the transfer of possession of the ring has the burden of presenting evidence to establish either that the ring had not been intended as an engagement ring, that it was an engagement ring but had not been transferred subject to the condition of marriage or any other condition, or that the condition attached to the transfer of the ring had been canceled.
Robinson's testimony that Campbell had told her that she could keep the ring was evidence that the conditional nature of the transfer of the ring to Robinson had been converted to an absolute gift. As the court concluded, Campbell's claims for declaratory judgment as to the ownership of the ring and his claim for the ring's return presented a jury question as to whether the transfer had become absolute, necessitating the remand of the case to the trial court.
The court further ruled that Campbell's claim for restitution, based on Robinson's benefit in possessing the ring following the termination of the engagement, was barred as a matter of law because (1) there was no evidence that Campbell had presented the ring to Robinson at her request, and (2) there was no evidence that Campbell had permitted Robinson to keep the ring at her request or that he had reasonably relied upon her to pay for the ring. Finally, the court ruled that Robinson had not preserved her right to appeal from the denial of her motions for directed verdict and judgment N.O.V. as to her action for Campbell's alleged breach of promise to marry.It seems that the only safe conclusion is that in the absence of prospective spouses' expression of absolutely clear terms as to the ownership of the engagement ring, there is a good possibility that the termination of the engagement will lead to unfortunate legal complications.