Are Diamonds Forever?

Dan Rabinowitz draws our attention to this Slate article, which discusses this story:

Diamond dispute: She dumps Staten Island man, but keeps ring

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — A Staten Island man allegedly spurned by his fiancee wants her to return the $17,500 diamond engagement ring he gave her.

And he’s going to court to get it.

Christopher Reinhold, 25, alleges Colette DiPierro kept the sparkler after breaking off their engagement in September. Reinhold had given her the ring four months earlier “in contemplation and consideration of marriage,” according to a lawsuit he recently filed in state Supreme Court, St. George.

Despite his repeated requests, Ms. DiPierro, 28, has refused to return the ring, Reinhold charges.

One legal expert thinks Reinhold has a good case.

“It’s not just any gift,” said James Cohen, a Fordham University Law School professor. “It’s a gift that has explicit and implicit conditions, which is marriage. It seems to me if she cancels the [marriage], he should get it back.”

Cohen said Reinhold might even have a case if he broke off the engagement.

On the other hand, the professor said, Reinhold would probably be out of luck if he tried to reclaim a $17,500 necklace or even a sports car he had given as an unconditional token of his affection.

“If it has no significance beyond being a gift, then he can’t get it back,” said Cohen.

Slate’s analysis:

Christopher Reinhold of Staten Island says the diamond ring he gave to Collette DiPierro, who broke off their engagement in September 2009 after four months and growing doubts, is rightfully his. He has sued her to get it back. In his New York state-court suit, Reinhold says that he gave DiPierro the ring upon her promise to marry him. Since she broke off the engagement and the marriage did not take place, the deal, he says, is off. But DiPierro says that because Reinhold proposed on her birthday, the $17,500 ring was a gift, not a token symbolizing a promise to marry. So she can keep it. Or, actually, spend it: Neither Reinhold nor DiPierro claims sentimental attachment; both would be happy with the ring’s cash value.

Contract law takes the view that the exchange of a ring for the promise to wed constitutes a binding contract. It’s not the most romantic narrative, but in a court fight over a diamond, romance already lies in the dust. Essential to the formation of a contract between two people are an offer from one (“Will you marry me?”), an acceptance from the other (“Oh, my God, I have to call my mother. I mean, yes!”), and consideration from both (the ring from him, the promise from her). This last element, also known as a “bargained-for exchange,” requires that each person give up something of value to support the contract. Without the exchange of consideration, there is no contract.

But a ring handed over just because a beau thinks it will complement his lady’s finger is not a symbol of a binding agreement. It’s a gift. Gifts, generally, are theoretically unconditional, and recipients don’t have an obligation to offer anything in return. (Gracious appreciation is a social obligation and is uninteresting as far as the law is concerned.)

This is where DiPierro’s “birthday gift” argument comes in. But it’s shaky: Some courts, including in New York, do typically treat rings as a type of gift—a particular type. Unfortunately for DiPierro, though, engagement rings are viewed not the way other lavish presents are but as conditional gifts. They’re given on the “condition subsequent” that marriage will take place. Once the groom has smashed the glass, the condition on which the gift is made has been met (at which point it “vests”). The gift is then complete—and then the ring belongs to the bride (or, in some courts, it becomes marital property, divided in the event of divorce) even if the couple splits up over rum cocktails in Virgin Gorda two days later.

How much does it matter, for Reinhold’s suit, that it was DiPierro who canceled the wedding? DiPierro can’t argue that Reinhold owes her the ring because he failed to keep his part of the bargain, since she’s the one who ended things. She won’t win an argument grounded in contract (since if there was a contract between the two of them, she’s the one who broke it, and she’ll lose). This is why she has to go with the gift angle, even though it’s probably a loser, too: Not much supports her claim that the ring was a gift with no strings attached.

But if a groom cancels the wedding and the bride wants to keep the ring, she could have a better shot. She could say that in exchange for the ring, she gave her fiance an exclusive option to marry her. She took herself off the dating market, granting him the security of knowing she’s his to marry if he so chooses. It’s like an option to an agent on making a movie out of a book. The author gets to keep the option money when the film goes nowhere.

The Halachic view is very different; all durable gifts (such as jewelry) exchanged between fiancé and fiancée are assumed to be contingent on the eventual occurrence of the marriage, and must otherwise be returned, regardless of who broke the engagement:

השולח סבלונות לבית חמיו בין מרובין בין מועטין בין שאכל שם סעודת ארוסין בין שלא אכל בין שמת היא בין שמת הוא או שחזר בו האיש יחזרו הסבלונות כולם חוץ מהמאכל והמשתה וכן מעות וכן כלים מועטין ששלח לה להשתמש שם בבית אביה אם נשתמשה בהם ובלו או אבדו אינם משתלמין אבל אם היו קיימים חוזר הכל וגובה אותם בבית דין שהדבר ידוע שלא שלחם אלא דרך נוי בלבד:

חזרה היא בה חוזר הכל ואפילו המאכל והמשקה נותנת דמיו בזול דהיינו שאם היו דמי המאכל והמשקה ששה משלמת ד’ …

[הגה] ויש אומרים דכל זה מיירי במה ששלח לאחר אירוסין אבל קודם אירוסין לאחר שידוכין חוזר הכל ויש חולקים:

המשדך בתו לחבירו ושלח לו בגדים ותכשיטין ואחר כך נתבטלו השדוכין וחזר בו החתן או חמיו יחזיר מה ששלח לו דכי היכי דהדרי סבלונות דשלח איהו לה הדרי מאי דשלחה איהי לדידיה דאומדן דעתה הוא שלא שלחה לו אלא על דעת שיכניסנה לחופה:1

  1. שלחן ערוך אה”ע סימן נ’ סעיפים ג’-ד’‏ []

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