When I first started practicing family law, all my friends seemed to ask the same question:
If we break-up, who gets the ring?
The frequency with which I had to answer was probably a time-of-life thing. Buying an engagement ring was just more proximate than the thought of paying a retainer.
But, as work-related questions go, I liked this one more than most because I knew (or thought I knew) the answer:
But not: it-depends-on-1,000-different-things-most-of-which-I can’t-predict.
It depends on one thing:
Did you actually get married?
Who Gets The Engagement Ring?
If you didn’t get married, then the partner who gave the ring gets it back, under the theory that the ring was a conditional gift and the condition was marriage. Once you marry, the recipient owns the ring. ‘Til then, it has to be returned if the engagement is broken. See Benassi v. Back & Neck Pain Clinic, Inc. 629 N.W.2d 475 (Minn. Ct. App. 2001).
And if we did get married?
Then the ring belongs to the recipient as her (or his) nonmarital property, because it was acquired before the marriage. Linderman v. Linderman, 364 N.W.2d 872 (Minn.Ct. App. 1985) And, like all nonmarital property, it has to be returned to the spouse to whom it belongs unless there’s a showing of “undue hardship.”
“But wait,” the careful reader asks, “how can it have been the recipient’s property before the marriage if you just said the gift isn’t complete until after the marriage.”
Because the Linderman case was decided 16-years before Benassi?
So maybe the answer isn’t quite so simple. But it’s also not as interesting as the question all my college friends should have asked:
Forget about the Ring, Who Gets Everything Else?
That’s right. When an unmarried couple breaks things off, who gets everything else? Particularly where they lived together, co-mingled their finances, and shared expenses.
He paid her mortgage. She paid his car payment. They bought a timeshare together. If they break-up, who gets it?
The easy answer is “whoever’s name is on it.”
The hard answer was the subject of a recent Court of Appeals decision in Anderson v. Lloyd, A15-0147 (Minn. Ct. App. Aug. 17, 2015).
Anderson and Lloyd began dating in 2000 and moved in together in 2001, into a house Lloyd owed. Anderson help with mortgage payments, paid some utilities, and even made improvements to the home. Eventually, they got engaged.
Together, the couple decided to sell Lloyd’s house and build a new home on land Lloyd also owed. Anderson did some of the concrete and construction work, and when the house was completed they lived there together (again with Anderson contributing the mortgage, utilities, etc.)
But in 2010 (a very long engagement, indeed) they broke things off.
So who owns the house?
Well, Lloyd. She owned the land it was built on after all.
The Trial Court decided for Lloyd, reasoning that Anderson’s lawsuit was essentially a lawsuit over a broken engagement, the sort of “heart-balm action,” no longer allowed in Minnesota. See Minn. Stat. § 553.02; M.N. v. D.S., 616 N.W.2d 284 (Minn. Ct. App. 2000); R.E.R. v. J.G., 552 N.W.2d 27 (Minn. Ct. App. 1996).
The Court of Appeals disagreed, and permitted Anderson to proceed with his claims for unjust enrichment and promissory estoppel, holding that they were not “predicated upon” a breach of promise to marry.
In other words, Anderson presented evidence that his lawsuit was more than hurt feelings and a broken engagement. Because of it, he was allowed to bring his case to trial to try to recover for his contributions to his ex’s home.
So friends can keep asking me who gets the ring back. But they should be asking who’ll get everything else.
If they did, here are the cases I’d tell them to read:
- In re Palmen’s Estate, 588 N.W.2d 493 (Minn. 1999)
- Obert v. Dahl, 574 N.W.2d 747 (Minn. Ct. App. 1998)
- In re Estate of Eriksen, 337 N.W.2d 671 (Minn. 1983)
And a few recent cases for good measure:
- Cook v. Wicktor-Heinks, A13-1878 (Minn. Ct. App. Aug. 18, 2014)
- Gfrerer v. Lemcke, A08-0873 (Minn. Ct. App. Mar. 24, 2009)
- McDonald v. Cahlander, A07-1376 (Minn. Ct. App. Aug. 12, 2008)
Photo Credit: By 1791diamonds (1791 Diamonds) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons