Feb. 12, 1998 Writer: Karen Meisenheimer
Source: Michael Moore; (352) 392-7139 or 379-1931
GAINESVILLE, Fla. --- The engagement was back on! Janis was certain it would all work out this time. She had the rock to prove it -- an opulent, $21,000 commitment -- glistening on her finger. Roger couldn't back out again.
Roger did back out, but this time Janis was holding on to the ring. She wasn't about to give up a girl's best friend twice. She ended up in court.
Not the typical Valentine's Day love story but one a University of Florida law student examined while researching the legal perspective of broken engagements. Second-year law student Michael Moore and UF law Professor Nancy Dowd concluded from the research that the laws should be reformed to reflect more balance in the value assigned to what each partner receives from the other.
"In most cases, the man will get the ring back," Moore said. "The problem with the existing law over broken engagements is that women are generally denied the right to claim monetary damages because expenses and sacrifices they make for the relationship are typically not valued."
In the Pennsylvania case of Roger and Janis, Roger prevailed on appeal, and Janis was ordered to return the diamond. Even though it was Roger who called off the wedding, the appellate court determined that an engagement ring is a conditional gift.
"Where the marriage does not ensue, the donee of an engagement ring is not entitled to keep the ring," the Pennsylvania court wrote in its ruling.
Lawsuits over broken engagements became popular in Revolutionary America, Moore said. But in the 1930s, several states began enacting "heart balm" statutes, which deny people the right to sue over a broken engagement.
In other words, the state says the heart can heal without recourse to the courts, Moore said, citing social commentators' and legal experts' opinions, and that had a lot to do with status of women and the changing sexual mores in society.
Modern-day court actions over the recovery of a $40,000 or $60,000 engagement ring are a different story, he said. They deal more with economic value than broken hearts.
"The law is not very well-defined in this area because so few cases reach the appellate courts," Moore said. "Most people work these things out outside of the courtroom because the expense of the suit can well exceed the value of the ring."
Moore said cases that do end up in court usually come down to the issue of unjust enrichment, meaning it's not fair to let the ring recipient keep the rock if no marriage occurs.
"The engagement ring is recoverable, but little else is," he said.
Consider the case of Dale and Donald:
At one point during their eight years of living together, Donald bought Dale a diamond engagement ring. When Donald moved to attend graduate school, Dale joined him and handled the household duties, including cooking, laundry, ironing, cleaning and taking care of Donald's children from a previous relationship. Donald ended his relationship with Dale and sued her for recovery of the ring.
In a countersuit filed by Dale, she submitted a monetary value for her years of domestic service to Donald. At $6 an hour, the total came to $25,000. Again, the court of appeals sided with the ring-giver, saying Dale's contributions had no market value.
Dowd said cases involving engagement rings are heavily gender-laden.
"Most people understand the ring as a gift," Dowd said. "No one says, ‘I'm going to give you this ring, and if we don't go through with the wedding, I get it back.' That's not the way it's portrayed in the diamond ads."
Moore said until there are more opportunities for people to recover other expenditures, nobody should be allowed to recover anything.
"While men buy engagement rings in contemplation of marriage, women typically make sacrifices in other ways," Moore wrote in his paper. "Unfortunately, courts have fallen into a pattern where men are permitted to recover engagement rings, or their worth, while women are not permitted to recover anything for performing household tasks or purchasing items in contemplations of marriage."
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