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Family LawThe newsletter of ISBA’s Section on Family Law

June 2011, vol. 54, no. 8

Broken engagements

Today, engagements and wedding preparations have taken on epic proportions. Between the popularity of televisions shows such as “Say Yes to the Dress,” “Amazing Wedding Cakes,” “My Fair Wedding,” and “Bridezillas” as well as the full press coverage of celebrity weddings (Hilary Duff, Katy Perry, Chelsea Clinton and Heidi Montag were among those tying the knot in 2010 and the Royal Wedding of Kate Middleton and Prince William stole headlines in 2011), wedding planning has become a spectator sport.

The emphasis on creating the dream wedding has created an entire industry that has swelled in size in recent years. In 2009, the average cost of a wedding was in excess of $30,000 (http://www.bridalassociationofamerica.com/Wedding_Statistics/) and the market value for the wedding planning industry was estimated to be over $71 billion (http://www.bridalassociationofamerica.com/Wedding_Statistics/).

So what happens when, despite the big spending, the dream wedding doesn’t come true? Based on pre-cana statistics kept by the Catholic Church, about one in five couples split up after announcing wedding plans. (http://www.theregoesthebride.com/press.cfm?l=167). In the event of a broken engagement, who keeps the ring and who is responsible for the wedding planning expenses? Emily Post, the famous American etiquette author, believes that the proper thing to do is to give the ring back to the giver regardless of the reasons for the broken engagement, Post, Emily, Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home Chapter XX (Funk & Wagnalls 1922). However, this is a case where proper etiquette and what is required by the law do not necessarily yield the same result.

Illinois

These questions and more will soon be addressed in two recently filed cases.

The case of attorney Dominique Buttitta v. Vito Salerno, Case No. 2010 L 014003 was filed in the civil law division on December 10, 2010 in Cook County for the “breach of promise to marry,” “intentional infliction of emotional distress” and more than $95,000 in damages (for the expenses of reserving the banquet hall, booking the live music, purchasing a wedding dress, flowers and lighting among other things) plus the cost of filing suit. Mr. Salerno promptly counter-sued alleging the decision to call off the wedding was mutual and seeking the return of the engagement ring, which is worth almost $46,000. The suits were consolidated in January of 2011 and most recently Judge Daniel Pierce denied Mr. Salerno’s Motion to Quash a Records Subpoena directed to the priest who conducted the couple’s pre cana counseling on April 18, 2011.

The case of attorneys Lauren Serafin v. Robert Leighton, Case No. 2011 L 02453 was filed on March 4, 2011 for many of the same reasons. In this case, after an alleged affair during Mr. Leighton’s bachelor party in Las Vegas the wedding was called off. Ms. Serafin’s complaint has the same two counts as Ms. Buttitta’s and seeks over $62,814.71 in damages for many of the same expenses incurred by Ms. Buttitta. However, as of April 11, 2011 Ms. Serafin voluntarily dismissed her claims against Mr. Leighton and it is likely the matter was settled out of court.

Current Statutory Law

In Illinois, while there are many legal principles which can be applied in cases involving broken engagements, there is only one act which specifically addresses such issues. The Breach of Promise Act, 740 ILCS § 15/1-10 (West 2008), was enacted explicitly to govern the enforcement of actions based upon breaches of promises or agreements to marry because the legislature felt that such breaches have “been subject to grave abuses and [have] been used as an instrument for blackmail by unscrupulous persons for their unjust enrichment due to the indefiniteness of the damages recoverable in such actions and the consequent fear of persons threatened with such actions that exorbitant damages might be assessed against them.” Id. at § 15/1. This statute further eliminated the possibility of monetary damages being awarded for emotional distress in such actions. Id. Damages are limited to the recovery of actual damages and punitive, exemplary, vindictive or aggravated damages are recoverable. Id. at § 15/2-3. The Breach of Promise Act also requires that the person who intends to file suit under this act must notify the person against whom the action is to be brought notice of their intention to file suit within three months from the date of the alleged breach of promise to marry. Id. at § 15/4. If such notice is not given the action is forever barred. Id. at § 15/5. The Breach of Promise Act also imposes a statute of limitations on such actions of 1 year after the cause of action accrues. Id. at § 15/6.

Current Case Law

Illinois case law has looked at the issues resulting from broken engagements from many angles.

In 1962, the Supreme Court of Illinois decided the case of Prassa v. Corcoran, 24 Ill.2d 289 (1962). In this case, the court had to decide whether the bride to be had any interest in property purchased by a couple during their engagement. Id. at 289. The property was paid for solely by the husband to be but title was taken jointly. Id. Subsequently, over arguments regarding the decorating and furnishing of the property the wedding was called off and reconciliation attempts were unsuccessful. Id. at 291. The court decided that the evidence showed that husband to be had no intention of making a gift of the property to his fiancée prior to the consummation of the marriage and thus only a resulting trust and no beneficial interest was bestowed upon the wife to be at the time title was taken. Id. at 294. The court in this case was careful to point out, however, “[t]his is certainly not to suggest that a gift cannot be given by one engaged individual to another in contemplation of marriage.” Id. at 295.

In 1986, the Fifth District Appellate Court decided the case of Harris v. Davis, 139 Ill.App.3d 1047 (5th Dist. 1986). In this case the issue was precisely “whether a man who has given a woman an engagement ring is entitled to the ring or its value when his fiancée subsequently break the engagement.” Id. In this case the bride to be was out drinking with her girlfriends when her fiancée arrived and they got into an argument that became physical. Id. After being separated by another man in the bar, the bride to be threw her ring into a nearby field. Id. She informed her now ex-fiancée of the whereabouts of the ring but even with the aid of metal detectors he was unable to find it. Id. As a result he brought a small claims action seeking $1,390, the cost of the ring. Id. At the trial court level, the judge found for the defendant reasoning that the physical altercation was what “triggered” the loss of the ring and that the plaintiff should be “made to share in the loss.” Id. However, on appeal, the Fifth District found that Illinois law is clear and well established that “a gift given in contemplated of marriage is deemed to be conditional on the subsequent marriage of the parties, and the party who fails to perform on the condition of the gift has no right to property acquired under such pretenses.” Id. at 1048. The court further reasoned that the parties did not dispute the fact that it was the defendant who broke the engagement and there are no specific allegations that the plaintiff’s actions caused the break up. Id. Therefore, the defendant failed to perform and is liable to the plaintiff for the value of the engagement ring. Id.

In 1994, the Second District Appellate Court decided the case of Vann v. Vehrs, 260 Ill.App.3d 649 (2d Dist. 1994). This case was a replevin suit for the recovery of an engagement ring. Id. The plaintiff proposed to the defendant in August of 1988 but by June of 1989 the defendant had decided to postpone the wedding “indefinitely” but she refused to return the ring. Id. Despite the defendant’s motions to dismiss based on an expired statute of limitations and a failure to comply with notice requirements as set forth in the Breach of Promise Act, 740 ILCS 15/6 (West 1992), the trial court eventually found that the engagement was “mutually broken” and the defendant must return the engagement ring. Id. On appeal, the Second District Appellate Court looked at the legislative intent of the Breach of Promise Act and affirmed the trial court’s decision that it did not apply to an action in replevin for the return of an engagement ring. Id. at 651. The court acknowledged that rights to an engagement ring following a mutually broken engagement was an issue of first impression in Illinois and then reviewed the rulings of those jurisdictions which had ruled on the issue and sided with the majority reasoning that “an engagement ring is a gift conditional on the subsequent marriage of the parties, and when the condition is not fulfilled, the donee no longer has any right to the ring.” Id. at 652.

The most recent case on the issue of broken engagements was decided in 2009 when the Second District Appellate Court decided the case of Carroll v. Curry, 912 N.E.2d 273 (2d Dist. 2009). In this case the plaintiff sued the defendant in replevin for the return of the engagement ring as well as other items of personal property including a plasma television and audio equipment. Id. At the trial court level, the court ruled that the defendant must return the engagement ring but nonsuited the second count of the complaint involving the other items of personal property. Id. The defendant appealed on the basis that there was a genuine issue of material fact regarding the infidelity of the plaintiff and thus the cause of the broken engagement, and that the trial court had summarily decided the case using a no-fault approach. In its review, the appellate court focused on the fact that the nature of this action was in replevin. Id. at 274. Because the action was in replevin, the court found that fault was not an issue to be considered. Thus, the appellate court affirmed the decision of the trial court and the defendant was ordered to return the engagement ring to the plaintiff.

Other Approaches

No Fault Approach

The Connecticut legislature has abolished actions for alienation of affection and breach of promise. Conn. Gen. State 52-572(b) (2008). The Connecticut case law reveals that an exception to abolishment of such claims are those actions which request the return of property. Using common law principles, the Connecticut court developed a no fault approach ruling consistently that once an engagement is broken the engagement ring should be returned to the person who gave it. See e.g. Thorndike v. Demirs, 44 Conn. L. Rptr. No. 1, 30 (October 15, 2007) (“because the engagement ring is a conditional gift, when the condition is not fulfilled its value should be returned to the donor no matter who broke the engagement or caused it to be broken”) (citations omitted). Some of the other jurisdictions which follow the no-fault approach are Kansas, See e.g. Heiman v. Parrish, 262 Kan. 926 (1997), Iowa, See, e.g. Fierro v. Hoel, 465 N.W.2d 669 (Iowa Ct. App. 1990), New Jersey, See, e.g. Aronow v. Silver, 223 N.J. Super. 344 (1987), and New York, See e.g. Marshall v. Cassano, 2001 NY Slip Op. 40320U. Many jurisdictions are employing this approach because courts are hesitant to become involved emotional and personal aspects of family law. Many of these jurisdictions also follow the no fault approach to divorces and believe that the return of an engagement ring should be similarly handled.

Unconditional Gift Approach

In the case of Albinger v. Harris, 2002 WL 1226858 (Mont. 2002), the Montana Supreme Court ruled that an engagement ring is a completed gift. If the woman can prove that the engagement ring was a gift under the law (intent, delivery and acceptance) she will be allowed to keep the ring. Whether a ring is determined to be a gift may also depend on when it is given. Many courts have ruled that if an engagement ring is given on a birthday or a holiday the ring a simple gift.

Implied Conditional Gift Approach

In California, the rightful owner of the ring after a broken engagement depends on which party decided to break the engagement. For example, if the person who received the ring is the one who is reneging on the engagement, then that person must relinquish the jewelry. (http://www.cnn.com/2008/LIVING/personal/01/07/diamond.not.forever/index....) In practical terms, that means a fiancée will only get his ring back if his fiancée breaks off the engagement.

Conclusion

While the law in Illinois seems to indicate some willingness to follow the fault-based approach, the law in this state is still evolving. It will be interesting to see how the Buttitta v. Salerno case is decided. ■


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