By: Attorney Dianna M. Williams | Associate
You want it to be perfect. You painstakingly plan the date, time and place where you will pop the question and ask your significant other to spend the rest of his or her life with you. You want it to be special and naturally think of the most romantic day of the year- Valentine’s Day! However, before you choose to propose on Valentine’s Day, or any other holiday for that matter, you should consider the legal consequences should the marriage not go forward.
There is no right, under current Massachusetts law, to sue someone for his or her failure to go through with his or her promise to marry you. See Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 207, Section 47A (“Breach of contract to marry shall not constitute an injury or wrong recognized by law, and no action, suit or proceeding shall be maintained therefor.”). However, courts in Massachusetts have long recognized the right of a person, in certain circumstances, to seek the return of an engagement ring should the marriage not go forward. For purposes of this article, “donor” is the person who proposed and gave the engagement ring, and the “donee” is the person who accepted the proposal and engagement ring.
As Massachusetts’ highest court noted in De Cicco v. Barker, 339 Mass. 457, 458 (1959), “[i]t is generally held that an engagement ring is in the nature of a pledge, given on the implied condition that the marriage shall take place. If the contract to marry is terminated without fault on the part of the donor the [donor] may recover the ring.” See also Alkhairy v. Ahmad, 2016 WL 419603, at 3 (Mass. Super. Jan. 22, 2016); but see Wells v. Coleman, 2017 WL 2257633, judgment entered, 2017 WL 2257623 (Mass. Land Ct. May 5, 2017)(however, if the donor is the one to break off the engagement, under Massachusetts law, the donor may not be able to get his or her engagement ring back from the donee); Poirier v. Raad, 1995 WL 809499 (Mass. Super. Jan. 4, 1995)(if the donor is at fault in the termination of the engagement, even if it was technically terminated by the donee, he or she may not be entitled to the return of the engagement ring).
So, while you have no right to sue your significant other for failing to go forward with marriage, you may have a right to recover the ring that you gave him or her on the condition that he or she marry you. These are different things, as the latter is “is a proceeding not to recover damages either directly or indirectly for breach of the contract to marry but to obtain on established equitable principles restitution of property held on a condition which the defendant was unwilling to fulfil.” DeCicco, supra at 535. This makes sense, because your significant other would otherwise be unjustly enriched by agreeing to marry you, receiving a beautiful, expensive engagement ring as a result of that promise, and failing to go through with that promise, but keeping the ring anyway.
This rule may not apply, however, if you choose to propose on a holiday. Rather than being seen as a conditional gift, conditional on the donee going through with the marriage, there is a risk that a court could find the ring to be a traditional, non-conditional Valentine’s Day (or birthday, Christmas, Hanukah, etc.) gift instead. See Wells, supra (“it must be unequivocally clear that the gift is indeed explicitly and intimately tied to the specific event of marriage. Many gifts may be simply tokens of love and affection for which equity does not mandate recovery.”); see also Reed v. St. Romain, 2012 WL 4335329 (La. App. 1 Cir. Sept. 21, 2012)(diamond ring given days before Christmas found to be an irrevocable, non-conditional gift); Maiorana v. Rojas, 787 N.Y.S. 2d 678 (Civ. Ct. 2004)(court considered whether a ring given as a birthday, Christmas and engagement present constituted a gift conditional on marriage). That means that your significant other has a chance of walking away from the marriage (and you) while keeping that ring that you worked so hard to purchase.
The moral of this article is that, while you should absolutely put forth the effort to make your engagement as romantic, special and memorable as possible (it is a very important occasion, after all!), plan it for its own day (and not a holiday), and make it clear to your significant other that the ring is solely a gift conditioned on his or her promise to marry you and not a gift (in whole or in part) for any other occasion!
If you have any questions or if you need guidance, please call the attorneys at Wynn & Wynn, P.C. at 1.800.852.5211 or request a free consultation.