Gifts Given During An Engagement

During the course of any relationship, gifts are freely given and received; but when an engaged couple breakup before marriage, who gets to keep what, and what needs to be returned? The answer, as with everything in the law, depends. It depends on the gift that was given, it depends on the type of gift, and it depends on the circumstances surrounding the gift.

Under common law, a party could bring someone to court for a breach of a promise to marry. The Utah Supreme Court abolished the cause of action holding it arose over four-hundred years ago when marriage was largely economical rather than emotional. See Jackson v. Brown, 904 P.2d 685, 686 (Utah 1995). Now that marriage is not driven by economic advantage, there is little sense in holding someone to a contract for changed emotions. However, the court did leave open the possibility a scorned lover could receive some repayment of economic expenditures when an engagement ends without marriage.

One such possible recovery is under the theory of conditional gift. A conditional gift is a gift given with the intent it will become final at the occurrence of some later event. Not all gifts given during the engagement period are conditional. What makes a gift conditional in a broken engagement analysis is whether it was the donor’s intent that the gift was given in anticipation of marriage. However, a mere self-serving statement at the time a complaint is filed is not sufficient to establish the donor’s intent. The court will look at the nature of the gift, and the circumstances surrounding the giving of the gift in making their determination.  For instance, a check wherein the memo line says “Wedding Expenses” would make an otherwise normal gift into one whose circumstances show the donor’s intent that the gift is conditional on the marriage.

Generally, an engagement ring is a gift that is, by its very nature, given with the clear intent that marriage will occur. However, a caveat to this clear rule is when an engagement ring is given on the donee’s birthday. There, the court may conclude the circumstances surrounding the gift conflict with the apparent nature of the gift making the intent unclear and therefore not enough to make it per se conditional. As occurred in the New York case Mairoana v. Rojas, 787 N.Y.S.2nd 678.

A Utah Court of Appeals case from 2007 had a man bring an action against his former fiancé after she broke off their engagement for the costs associated with vacations, assistance in buying a vehicle, and vasectomy he paid for, though she did give the engagement ring back. See Hess v. Johnston, 163 P.3d 747 ( ). The court refused to grant relief because, unlike the engagement ring, these are not gifts that by their very nature would suggest they are conditioned upon a marriage, nor do the circumstances surrounding their giving clarify the issue. It was therefore impossible for the donor to prove, in court what his intent was. Perhaps he should have saved the trip to Paris for the honeymoon.

Giving a gift to a fiancé is a commonplace activity, but how you give the gift will control what you can collect if the relationship fails.