A Familiar Ring

November 19, 2018 § 2 Comments

An endearing and prevalent romantic custom is to bestow a ring on one’s sweetheart. Quite often the ring is an emblem of engagement in the expectation of marriage. When the expectation is not realized, the gift is said to be conditional and remains the property of the donor, as in the Cooley case, which we discussed at this link. When the expectation does ripen into marriage, the ring is a gift to the donee as in the Lomax and Neville cases, which we discussed here.

A recent case presents a scenario somewhere between those two.

During the time that Dr. Christopher Cummins was separated from his wife, he became romantically involved with one of his employees, Leah Jordan (later Goolsby). Although Cummins had not divorced his wife, and never did at any time relevant to this case, he and Jordan began living together, and even became engaged, which Cummins memorialized with a gift of rings. Later, Jordan broke off the engagement and kept the rings. After Jordan filed a paternity suit against him, Cummins counterclaimed for the rings that he claimed were worth $11,435. He asked the court to order that the rings be returned, or that he have a credit for their value against court-ordered child support. He argued Cooley — that the conditional gift was never completed by marriage, and so had to be returned to the donor.

The chancellor ruled that the rings were a completed inter vivos gift because Cummins had never divorced his wife, rendering the condition impossible due to the fact that he could not legally marry Jordan. Cummins appealed.

In Cummins v. Goolsby, decided October 18, 2018, the MSSC affirmed. Justice Maxwell wrote the opinion for a unanimous court (Justice Coleman specially concurring):

¶9. Dr. Cummins argues that the chancellor failed to follow the Cooley v. Tucker decision. In that case, the Court of Appeals applied the following test to determine whether an engagement ring was a completed inter vivos gift: “(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.’” Cooley, 200 So. 3d at 476 (quoting Johnson v. Collins, 419 So. 2d 1029, 1030 (Miss. 1982)). Looking specifically at the third factor, the Cooley Court held that the engagement ring was an inter vivos gift, but it was conditioned upon the parties’ getting married. Id. And because the parties did not get married, the condition was unfulfilled and the gift was incomplete. Id. Thus, the former boyfriend was entitled to the return of the ring. Id. Dr. Cummins argues that, because he and Jordan did not get married, he is in the same position as the boyfriend in Cooley. He claims the third element of a completed inter vivos gift—that the gift was complete and nothing was left to be done—had not been met. So, he was entitled to the return of the rings.

¶10. But this case is not like Cooley.

¶11. First, we would note that the context is different. Cooley involved a replevin action filed by the former boyfriend after the dating relationship had ended. In this case, it was only after Jordan sued Dr. Cummins to establish paternityand to receive financial support for their child that Dr. Cummins asserted his counterclaim to the rings and specifically plead that the value of the rings should be credited against any financial obligation he owed to Jordan as their child’s father. Although the child-support issue is not before this Court on appeal, we find it worth noting that child-support benefits belong to the child, not to the custodial parent who receives the benefits under a fiduciary duty to use them for the benefit and protection of the child. Edmonds v. Edmonds, 935 So. 2d 980, 986 (Miss. 2006) (citing Caldwell v. Caldwell, 579 So. 2d 543, 549 (Miss. 1991)). So, even if Dr. Cummins had a right to the rings or to the rings’ value, by no means is he entitled to the ultimate remedy he seeks — a reduction in child support based on the broken engagement.

¶12. Second, and more importantly, unlike the boyfriend in Cooley, Dr. Cummins was married when he gave Jordan the rings. In fact, he was still married when he asked the chancery court to order Jordan to give them back. As the chancellor recognized, Dr. Cummins’s marriage is significant because he conditioned his gift on something he legally could not do—marry Jordan. See Miss. Code Ann. § 97-29-13 (Rev. 2014). And now he argues this very condition — or the failure thereof — is what entitles him to the rings.

¶13. “[O]ne of the maxims of equity is, ‘He who comes into equity must come with clean hands.’” Thigpen v. Kennedy, 238 So. 2d 744, 746 (Miss. 1970). And conditioning a gift on marriage when one cannot lawfully marry violates public policy and constitutes unclean hands. See, e.g., Morgan v. Wright, 133 S.E.2d 341, 343 (Ga. 1963) (holding that an action to recover an engagement ring given to a married woman was barred by the doctrine of unclean hands). Dr. Cummins could not legally marry Jordan at the time he gave her the rings. So, he cannot now bring an action for the rings to be returned because the condition of marriage never occurred. See Lipschutz v. Kiderman, 76 A.D.3d 178, 184 (N.Y. App. Div. 2010) (“[W]here a party gives an engagement gift to another with knowledge that an impediment to a lawful marriage exists, whether the impediment is on the part of the donor or the recipient, no action will lie to compel a return of the property on the ground that the condition of marriage did not take place.”).

¶14. Because, unlike the boyfriend in Cooley, Dr. Cummins had no right to have the rings returned as part of his paternity dispute with Jordan, the chancellor did not err when she awarded the rings to Jordan. We affirm the chancellor’s judgment.

Justice Coleman’s specially concurring opinion, joined in part by Beam, Ishee, and Randolph, points out that the law of promise to marry in Mississippi is governed by contract law, rather than by the law of gifts. It’s worth a read.

A few points:

  • With this decision, we now have law covering the most common ring-gift situations: (1) the uncompleted gift conditioned on marriage, Cooley; (2) the gift completed by marriage, Lomax and Neville; and (3) the gift that was intended originally to be conditional, but cannot be completed due to impossibility, Cummins.
  • Kudos to the court for invoking the maxims of equity.
  • If you’re going to take up with someone else while separated from your spouse, for Pete’s sake don’t get engaged, and by all means don’t get carried away with engagement rings.

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