Family Law – Broken Heart – Must I Give Back the Engagement Ring?

Question: My daughter's 'ex' future father-in-law is asking her to return her engagement ring over a year after his son broke off the engagement. Is she obligated to return it--name removed--My daughter and her ex fiancé lived in Florida for almost 2 years at the time they became engaged--name removed--She now lives in Iowa--name removed--He lives in Pennsylvania.

Answer: I recall being very young at one time, so young that I was not yet ready for school. Afternoons my mother would have my lie on the couch to nap while she watched afternoon soap operas. When she laid down with me I’d draw her eyebrows and the outline of her face, which always brought a smile to her face and her request that I go to sleep. Still today I can hear the melody of The Guiding Light, As the World Turns and The Edge of Night. Today, some might call it child abuse but as training for this question even law school fell short. [Not really but I wanted to say it did because many afternoons I missed nap to catch up on the latest romance gone bad and during law school there wasn’t time to much else but read cases. Thanks Mom. Sorry Dean Calkins!]

Let’s assume Mr. Special sues the Jilted Bride-2-Be in Iowa, since that is where she lives. Of course he hasn’t sued her and each is now living several states apart so it’s probably safer to assume he never will because the cost of travel and to hire a lawyer would soon overtake any recovery he might get from a Judge in either Iowa or Florida. He can’t sue the Jilted-One in Pennsylvania because she’s never lived there and isn’t there now. Since neither live in Florida that venue isn’t likely to be convenient for either so Iowa is the likely target for venue.

Now you see Mr. Special’s Papa is intervening and playing the emotional card, so that’s a clear indication they have no intention of actually suing. Hint-hint!

Yes I’m a lawyer and some where in this blog post I’m required to tell you what the law requires. This being as good a time as any let me tell you the law of Iowa. In the case of John Fierro vs. Janna Hoel, 465 N.W.2d 669 (Iowa App. 1990) the Iowa Court of Appeals took up this issue and decided as a conditional gift the ring must be returned if the marriage was never to be. The Court found an engagement ring is given in contemplation of marriage as a conditional gift. And if the marriage never happens the ring must be returned to the donor.

Some times you know life just isn’t fair. And as we lawyers soon learn the law isn’t about fairness but justice. And justice isn’t about being fair but about applying the common and statutory law. So in this case the bride-2-be being the donee of a conditional gift is required by law to return the engagement ring to the donor because the marriage didn’t take place.

I do recall an editorial in the Des Moines Register that was written in response to this case. The Board acting as a guiding light advised the not-to-be bride to instead throw the ring in the Des Moines River. I wouldn’t advise that but then again I have to wonder what the court would say if before being sued the ring were lost, stolen or sold? After all there is a point when delay causes the Court to apply the doctrine of laches, an ancient concept similar to a statute of limitations but having it’s origin in common law and equity. Equity being the inherent power of the Courts to exercise discretion to do what is right when delay causes one party to be prejudiced.

LACHES, DOCTRINE OF - Based on the maxim that equity aids the vigilant and not those who procrastinate regarding their rights; Neglect to assert a right or claim that, together with lapse of time and other circumstances, prejudices an adverse party. Neglecting to do what should or could, have been done to assert a claim or right for an unreasonable and unjustified time causing disadvantage to another.”

It’s an interesting notion in that if a wedding were called off and the jilted party having purchased a dress and the other items associated with putting on a wedding, were to have to sell the ring to pay for those expenses, then would the delay cause the Judge to find laches a proper defense to the action for return of the ring? At what point must a person inform the person they proposed to, that they were having second thoughts? And if they delayed in so informing them, would the wedding expense being incurred during the delay create a cause of action against the jilter? I’m not sure, but it sure is an interesting thing to think about. The Guiding Light, as it was called prior to 1975, aired for 15 minute episode. Man could you learn a lot about life in just 15 minutes. Maybe we should bring back the 15 minute format. Oh it’s just a thought.

“Laches is derived from the French 'lecher' and is nearly synonymous with negligence.

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