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Who gets to keep the engagement ring?

in Family Law by Mabel Hui on

Australian billionaire James Packer recently proposed to his pop diva girlfriend Mariah Carey with a 35-carat diamond ring said to be worth up to a staggering $16 million. Although many of you are eagerly awaiting what will no doubt be a lavish and star studded wedding, one cannot help but wonder who would get to keep the ring in the event that Mariah’s platform stilettos do not make it down the aisle.

If it were up to an Australian court, the answer may be found in the case of Papathanasopoulos v Vacopoulos.[1] 

In this NSW Supreme Court case, the parties exchanged engagement rings before their family and friends only to have Ms. Vacopoulos break off the engagement ten days later. She supposedly offered to return the ring to her former fiancé but was told to keep it, as it was a gift. Ms. Vacopoulos elected to dispose of the $15,250 ring in the garbage together with any remaining photographs and memories of the couple.  Mr. Papathanasopoulos then commenced proceedings seeking to recover the engagement ring or its value.

The Court likened the promise of marriage to a commercial bargain, governed largely by the law of contracts. In other words, the act of giving an engagement ring could be seen as nothing more than a transaction where the ring symbolises a deposit for fulfilment of a contract. And they say that romance is dead…

The Court then summarised the principles that apply to engagement rings, as follows:

  1. If a woman who has received a ring in contemplation of marriage refuses to fulfil the conditions of the gift, she must return the ring;
  2. If a man refuses to carry out his promise of marriage, without legal justification, he cannot demand the return of the ring;
  3. It is irrelevant whether the denial of the promise turns out to benefit both parties;
  4. If the engagement is ended by mutual consent, then in the absence of any agreement to the contrary, the engagement ring and similar gifts must be returned by each party to the other.

The Court also commented that a woman could raise a plea of ‘legal justification’ for her refusal to carry out her promise of marriage if it was shown that there was ‘repudiatory’ conduct on the man’s part, such as violence or an affair. In those circumstances, it would be possible for the woman to keep the ring.

It seems then that a decision as to who keeps the ring may turn on who breaks off the engagement and the reasons why he or she did so. This appears inconsistent with the Family Law principle of ‘no fault divorce’ that would apply if the couple were to actually tie the knot but subsequently seek a divorce.

A distinction must be drawn, however, between the parties in the above case and couples who cohabit before becoming engaged and who make significant contributions to any property of the parties. In the latter circumstances, an engagement ring may be treated as merely one part of a pool of assets for division between the parties. Or the ring may be excluded from a property settlement altogether due to its sentimental value.

When you have a 35-carat diamond ring, however, the value may be more than just sentimental...

For more information, visit our Family Law services.

[1] Papathanasopoulos v Vacopoulos [2007] NSWSC 502

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