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Wedding off, who keeps the ring?

Cynthia Godsoe, family law professor at Brooklyn Law School. File photo

Brooklyn Daily eagle

A Brooklyn man sues his ex-fiancée for the return of the engagement ring and other items given to her during their engagement. Alleging that his fiancée ran off with over $100,000 worth of goods, the abandoned lover is seeking replevin.

Kevin Li and his bride-to-be, Amy Chan, had been dating for a year before he asked for her hand in marriage. Having accepted, Li reportedly gave Chan a two-carat diamond ring worth close to $24,000.  

During a celebration of their engagement, family members showered the couple with jewelry, money, and other gifts. Li also claims that he paid a “betrothal fee” to Chan’s mother in the amount of $36,000.  It is common in Chinese culture for the groom-to-be to pay the bride’s family a “betrothal fee” for the promise to marry.

Li asserts that two days after the celebration, Chan ended the relationship, left with all of the gifts, and has refused to answer his calls.  Now both parties are preparing to argue who has the right to the engagement ring and all of the gifts given to the soon to be married couple.

In New York, one is generally not allowed to sue for breach of a promise to marry. In other words, a suit cannot be brought merely because someone broke off an engagement. The only cause of action available is to seek return of any gift given in contemplation of marriage. “There is a significant difference between the two,” noted Cynthia Godsoe, a family law professor at Brooklyn Law School. “With a breach of a promise to marry the harm is an emotional one. Gifts in contemplation of marriage involve a tangible harm. You can attach an actual value to the items need to make one whole again.”

Generally an engagement ring is a gift given in contemplation of marriage. This does not prevent one from arguing that the engagement ring is merely a gift and nothing more. Godsoe told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle of a case where a couple got engaged on Valentine’s Day. When the engagement was called off, the argument made was that the engagement ring was merely a Valentine’s Day gift and no more.
 
“The key thing is that the items must be given in contemplation of marriage,” said Brooklyn divorce attorney Angela Scarlato. “An engagement ring is a qualified or conditional gift that has to be returned if the wedding does not go through.”

This was not always the case in New York. Prior to 1935, New York allowed heart balm actions or lawsuits brought by women seeking money damages to assuage their broken hearts.  “New York abolished these lawsuits because it was determined that it is not the court’s business,” Godsoe explained. “We want bad relationships to break up.”

While the engagement ring is returned, Godsoe further explained that any monies put forth in preparation for a wedding must also be returned.

For Li, the issue will be whether the ring, the “betrothal fee,” and other gifts given during the engagement celebration are considered merely gifts or gifts given in contemplation of marriage.

With New York’s recent legalization of gay marriage, another issue arises.  “What happens if a same-sex couple engaged in a civil commitment ceremony because marriage was not legal in New York?  Is the “engagement ring” merely a gift?” Godsoe asks. “Do you have to have the right to marry in order to ask for the ring back?”

April 29, 2013 - 2:45pm


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