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.

The Conditional Ring

September 20, 2016 § 1 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.

Inter Vivos Gifts Between Spouses — the Next Step

March 27, 2014 § 4 Comments

It’s been a little more than two years since we last visited the saga of the litigation between the estate of Patricia Langston and her surviving spouse, Mansfield Langston. You can detour and refresh your recollection at this link. The facts that led to the litigation between Patricia’s estate and her surviving husband and joint owner, Mansfield, are in that earlier post.

In that last report, the COA had reversed and rendered, concluding that there was no undue influence by Mansfield that would justify setting aside a deed and CD that Patricia had placed into their joint ownership during her lifetime.

Following that COA ruling, however, the MSSC ordered that the case be remanded to give the estate an opportunity to prove undue influence. In its opinion, finding the issue to be one of first impression, the MSSC formulated a new rule in Mississippi law, that “[a] confidential relationship between spouses does not create a presumption that one spouse used undue influence over the other to obtain an inter vivos gift.”

The high court’s ruling as to spouses is in contrast with the general rule of inter vivos gifts, which is that, if you can establish a confidential relationship, a presumption arises that there was undue influence, which must be overcome by evidence of good faith.

On remand in this case the chancellor found no undue influence after applying the new rule. The estate appealed.

In Estate of Langston: Williams v. Langston, handed down March 18, 2014, the COA affirmed the chancellor.

The case is fact-intensive, and the chancellor resolved conflicting testimony in her findings. You can read the decision for yourself to see how any case you have might compare with the facts in this one. Suffice it to say that when you are striving to set aside spousal inter vivos gifts you have no presumption to aid you in scaling what is a rather steep jurisprudential cliff.

That would seem to me to be the end of the road for the Langston litigation. The MSSC had already clarified the law, and all that remained was for the chancellor to make her findings of fact and conclusions of law, which she did in due course. Now that the COA has blessed her ruling, I don’t see the MSSC taking it up again.

I think it’s a sound rule that a presumption does not arise out of the confidential relationship between spouses, because, after all, it’s the rare marriage that does not involve some degree of confidential relationship. Married couples make all sorts of decisions about joint ownership and exchanges of title based on what they judge to be in their mutual best interest. If all of those could be deemed presumptively questionable, we would see much more litigation, not much of which would benefit many folks.


April 21, 2011 § 2 Comments

Every now and then a case comes tumbling down from the appellate stratosphere that is remarkable not so much for the law of that particular case, but rather for the cascade of legal nuggets it unearths that one can mine and tuck away for future profitable use.  Such is Jernigan v. Young, handed down by the COA on April 19, 2011.

Samuel Jernigan and his wife Mae Bell were married in 1997.  Two years later, Samuel conveyed a .38-acre tract of land to Mae Bell by quitclaim deed.  He had filed for disability and was under the mistaken belief that if the land were no longer in his name his chances of a favorable ruling would improve.  Samuel claims that he and Mae Bell had an oral agreement that she would convey the property back to him.  There was no writing evidencing the alleged agreement.

In 1998, Mae Bell conveyed the property to her daughter Amy.  It is not disclosed in the record whether Samuel was aware of the transaction.

In 1999, Samuel and Mae Bell decided to get a divorce on the sole ground of irreconcilable differences.  They proceeded pro se using fill-in-the-blank forms.  In one of the blanks designated to identify what property would belong to each party appeared the handwritten notation “none.”

Four days after the divorce judgment was entered, Samuel filed a document styled “Withdrawal of Consent” and asked that the divorce be set aside.  He also filed a Complaint for Divorce and a pleading asking that the deed to Amy be set aisde, all of which were consolidated.  The case sat idle for seven years until Amy filed for summary judgment.  The chancellor granted summary judgment, which the COA affirmed.

Here are the nuggets from Judge Griffis’ opinion:

  • “[W]avering on whether a divorce should be entered may often occur and does not invalidate the divorce … What is important is that the agreement be validly expressed on the day that the chancellor is considering the issue.”  Sanford v. Sanford, 749 So.2d 353, 356 (Miss. App. 1999); Harvey v. Harvey, 918 So.2d 837, 839 (Miss. App. 2005).
  • Relief under MRCP 60(b) requires a showing of “exceptional circumstances.”  In re Dissolution of Marriage of De St. Germain, 977 So.2d 412, 416 (Miss. App. 2008).
  • No hearing or testimony is required to validate a divorce on the ground of irreconcilable differences.  MCA § 93-5-24(4).  In an irreconcilable differences divorce the parties “bargain on the premise that reaching an agreement will avoid the necessity of presenting proof at trial.”  Perkins v. Perkins, 737 So.2d 1256, 1263 (Miss. App. 2001).
  • Although MCA § 93-5-2(2) requires the chancellor to determine whether the parties’ agreement in an irreconcilable differences divorce is “adequate and sufficient,” that is not a “magic phrase,” and its absence in the divorce judgment approving the agreement is not a ground for reversal.  Cobb v. Cobb, 29 So.3d 145, 149 (Miss. App. 2010).
  • It is not in and of itself reversible error for the chancellor not to require financial disclosure via UCCR 8.05 financial statements in an irreconcilable differences divorce.  St. Germain at 417-418.  Where the lack of disclosure allowed a spouse to conceal major assets, however, it could amount to reversible error.  Kalman v. Kalman, 905 So.2d 760, 764 (Miss. App. 2004).
  • An inter vivos deed of gift need not be supported by separate consideration.  Holmes v. O’Bryant, 741 So.2d 366, 370 (Miss. App. 1999).  “A man of sound mind may execute a will or deed from any sort of motive satisfactory to him, whether that motive be love, affection, gratitude, partiality, prejudice, or even whim or caprice.”  Herrington v. Herrington, 232 Miss. 244. 250-251, 98 So. 2d 646, 649 (1957).
  • MCA § 91-9-1 requires that any trust in land must be in writing signed by the person declaring or creating the trust, or it is void.  The court may impose a constructive or resulting trust on land in the absence of a written agreement, provided that certain criteria are present.  Simmons v. Simmons, 724 So.2d 1054, 1057 (Miss. App. 1998).

And the most important point of all:  You get exactly what you pay for when you get a do-it-yourself divorce without benefit of legal counsel.


February 28, 2011 § 6 Comments

Mansfield and Patricia were married in 1994, when both were in their 40’s. It was the second marriage for each, and they had children by the previous marriages. Patricia suffered health problems during the marriage, and she received a Phen-Phen settlement in 2001.

On March 15, 2002, Patricia executed a will devising her entire estate to her three adult children and her sister. The will included this language: “Mansfield Langston, my husband, has his own estate in his name, therefore no provision for him is made in this will.”

Soon after in 2002, there was a series of transactions between the parties that ultimately resulted in a home being titled in joint ownership between Mansfield and Patricia, with right of survivorship. The home had formerly been in her sole name. There were other related transactions, the most significant of which was that a $200,000 CD was converted to joint tenancy with right of survivorship.

On May 11, 2005, Patricia died of a sudden illness, and Patricia’s estate was opened by her mother. The estate sought to set aside the joint tenancies in the marital home and the certificate of deposit in order to bring those assets into the estate for distribution to the will beneficiaries, who were Patricia’s adult children and Patricia’s sister.

Following the trial, the chancellor found that a confidential relationship existed between Mansfield and Patricia. Therefore, the chancellor ruled that the burden shifted to Mansfield to prove by clear and convincing evidence that the creation of the joint tenancies was not the result of undue influence. The chancellor held that Mansfield did not meet this burden, and both joint tenancies were set aside and brought into Patricia’s estate.

In the case of Estate of Langston, in a well-reasoned, authoritative opinion by Judge Griffis, the COA on March 30, 2010, reversed the chancellor and held that the presumption of undue influence did not apply to inter vivos transactions between husband and wife.  The ruling in effect extended the prior rule that the presumption of undue influence did not apply to testamentary dispositions between spouses.

On February 24, 2011, the Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed the COA in the case of Estate of Langston v. Williams in an opinion authored  by Justice Dickinson and joined by all but Graves, who has departed for his federal gig in New Orleans, that concludes with this key language:

“A confidential relationship between spouses does not create a presumption that one spouse used undue influence over the other to obtain an inter vivos gift. And one who claims the gift was the product of undue influence bears the burden of proof.”

The burden of proof is by clear and convincing evidence.

The case was remanded to Sunflower County Chancery Court to allow the estate to make a record on the issue, since the chancellor had ruled (properly under the law in effect at the time) that such a presumption did exist, so that the estate was neither required to prove, nor was it given the opportunity to prove, undue influence.

It’s not uncommon for issues like these to surface in second marriages of older couples where there are children by a prior marriage.  If you find yourself being presented with undue influence claims in a similar case, I encourage you to read Judge Griffis’s COA opinion.  It’s about as good an exposition of all the applicable case law that you will find.

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