The Conditional Ring

September 20, 2016 § Leave a comment

We talked here before about the status of the engagement ring in equitable distribution. To make a long issue short: the engagement ring is a gift that is the separate property of the wife and which is not subject to equitable division, although it is included in the wife’s estate as her separate property that could impact alimony and even the percentage of equitable distribution. You can read about it at this link.

Equitable distribution, of course, requires first a marriage and then a divorce. What, then, is the status of the engagement ring where there is no marriage and consequently no divorce.

That was the question before the court in the recent COA case of Cooley v. Tucker, decided September 6, 2016.

In that case, Tucker had given Cooley an expensive engagement ring. After a while, he broke off the relationship and requested that she return the ring to him. The proof included that: Cooley wore the ring continuously after she received it; Tucker insured the ring and listed himself as the sole owner of the policy with no mention of Cooley; the parties’ relationship became strained and troubled; and no wedding date was ever set, and no wedding plans were ever made.

When Cooley refused to return the ring, Tucker filed a replevin action in chancery court. The special chancellor ruled that the gift was a conditional one, rather than a completed, final, inter vivos gift. He found in Tucker’s favor, and Cooley appealed. Judge Ishee wrote for the court:

¶8. Cooley asserts that the chancery court erred in its determination that the ring was a conditional gift rather than an inter vivos gift. The chancery court properly cited Johnson v. Collins, 419 So. 2d 1029, 1030 (Miss. 1982), as guidance on the elements of a valid inter vivos gift, which are as follows: “(1) a donor competent to make a gift[;] (2) a voluntary act of the donor with donative intent[;] (3) the gift must be complete with nothing else to be done[;] (4) there must be delivery to the donee[; and] (5) the gift must be irrevocable.” Id. (citation omitted).

¶9. In Johnson, the properties at issue consisted of certificates of deposit that were given on the condition that the recipient obtain a divorce. Id. at 1031. The supreme court determined that because the divorce did not occur, the gift was not a valid inter vivos gift “because the gift was not complete with nothing left to be done.” Id.

¶10. Likewise, the cases relied upon by Cooley, Lomax v. Lomax, 172 So. 3d 1258 (Miss. Ct. App. 2015), and Neville v. Neville, 734 So. 2d 352 (Miss. Ct. App. 1999), are also divorce cases that question which party should be awarded the engagement ring post-divorce. In both cases, we determined that the wife should keep the engagement ring because “it was not a marital asset subject to equitable division.” Lomax, 172 So. 3d at 1262 (¶13) (quoting Neville, 734 So. 2d at 357 (¶19)).

¶11. This is not inconsistent with the required elements in Johnson. The engagement ring is to be considered an inter vivos gift conditioned upon the parties getting married – a condition that, obviously, occurred in the cases cited by Cooley. Id. at (¶11). Hence, in those cases, the Johnson requirements were met, including the element mandating that the gift be completed with nothing more to be done. Johnson, 419 So. 2d at 1030.

¶12. Here, the chancellor ultimately determined that “[t]he engagement ring was a conditional gift presented in contemplation of a marriage that did not occur.” It is from this determination that the chancellor awarded Tucker the ring. This conclusion is supported by Mississippi caselaw and by fact. We cannot find that the chancellor “was manifestly wrong, clearly erroneous, or applied an erroneous legal standard.” Buford, 832 So. 2d at 600 (¶14). This issue is without merit.

¶13. Cooley requests, in an alternative argument, that this Court create new precedents under which trial courts would determine ownership of an engagement ring following a broken engagement. We decline to do so. Existing Mississippi gift law adequately addresses cases such as this, and we will not deviate from the path set before us at this time.

Judges Barnes and Carlton both wrote dissenting opinions, joined in part by Griffis and James.

Unless the MSSC grants cert and chooses a different route, then, the law of engagement rings sans marriage will follow existing Mississippi gift law.

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