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The third approach in determining disposition of gifts treats the engagement ring as a conditional gift but treats all other gifts as irrevocable inter vivos gifts unless they were expressly conditioned on the subsequent marriage. This approach recognizes that an engagement ring symbolizes the couple's promise to marry. Because of that symbolic significance, it implies a condition with respect to the engagement ring only. This approach also recognizes that in the natural course of events it would be unusual for the donor to give the engagement ring upon the expressed condition that marriage was to ensue. Thus, it implies a condition to the gift of the engagement ring. However, this approach recognizes that the other gifts lack the symbolic significance of the engagement ring. It recognizes that gifts other than the engagement ring are only a token of the love and affection which the donor bore for the donee. It refuses to allow the donor to recover the gift simply because he or she later regrets having given it. Thus, it applies general gift law and treats the other gifts as irrevocable inter vivos gifts unless they were expressly conditioned on the subsequent marriage.
Plaintiff, Lester Cooper, suffered serious injury that caused him to be hospitalized for an extended period of time. While still in the hospital, plaintiff proposed to his girlfriend, defendant, Julie Smith. Defendant accepted, indicating that she would marry plaintiff after she divorced her husband. After leaving the hospital, plaintiff provided several gifts to defendant and defendant’s mother, including home improvements. When the parties broke off their engagement, the plaintiff filed a suit against the defendant and the mother, seeking reimbursement for the gifts he had given them. The plaintiff contended that the gifts he gave to the defendant were given in contemplation of marriage, and should have been returned to him when the engagement ended. In addition, he contended the gifts he gave to her mother should have been returned to him under a theory of unjust enrichment. At the conclusion of his case-in-chief, the defendants moved to dismiss his complaint. A magistrate granted the motion. Plaintiff appealed.
Was the plaintiff entitled to recover the gifts he gave to the defendant when the parties’ engagement ended?
Yes, but only with respect to the engagement ring.
The appellate court held that the plaintiff was entitled to recover the engagement ring, or its value. The engagement ring has a special significance because it symbolized the couple’s promise to marry. Thus, unless the parties have agreed otherwise, the donor was entitled to recover the engagement ring if the marriage did not occur, regardless of who ended the engagement. However, the court held that unlike the engagement ring, the other gifts have no symbolic meaning. Rather, they were merely “tokens of the love and affection which the donor bore for the donee.” The court held that gift law did not allow a donor to recover/revoke an inter vivos gift simply because his or her reasons for giving it have "soured". According to the court, gifts exchanged during the engagement period (excluding the engagement ring) were absolute and irrevocable inter vivos gifts unless the donor has expressed an intent that the gift be conditioned on the subsequent marriage. From the foregoing, the court concluded that the plaintiff could not recover the gifts, except the engagement ring.