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An engagement ring is in the nature of a pledge for the contract of marriage and, under the common law, it is settled, at least in a case where no impediment exists to a marriage, that, if the recipient breaks the engagement, she is required, upon demand, to return the ring on the theory that it constitutes a conditional gift.
Edwin Lowe, a married man, sues for the return of a diamond "engagement" ring which he gave Jayne Quinn in October of 1968 upon her promise to wed him when and if he became free; he had been living apart from his wife for several years and they contemplated a divorce. About a month after receiving the ring, Quinn told Lowe that she had "second thoughts" about the matter and had decided against getting married. When he requested the return of the ring, she suggested that he "talk to [her] lawyer". Convinced of the futility of further discussion, he brought this action to recover the ring or, in the alternative, the sum of $ 60,000, its asserted value. Following a motion by Quinn for summary judgment dismissing the complaint and a cross motion by Lowe to amend his complaint "to include causes of action for fraud, unjust enrichment and monies had and received," the court at Special Term denied Quinn’s application and granted Lowe’s. The Appellate Division reversed and granted Quinn’s motion, directing summary judgment against Lowe.
Is Lowe entitled to the return of the engagement ring?
An engagement ring "is in the nature of a pledge for the contract of marriage" and, under the common law, it was settled -- at least in a case where no impediment existed to a marriage -- that, if the recipient broke the "engagement," she was required, upon demand, to return the ring on the theory that it constituted a conditional gift. However, a different result is compelled where, as here, one of the parties is married. An agreement to marry under such circumstances is void as against public policy, and it is not saved or rendered valid by the fact that the married individual contemplated divorce and that the agreement was conditioned on procurement of the divorce. Based on such reasoning, the few courts which have had occasion to consider the question have held that a plaintiff may not recover the engagement ring or any other property he may have given the woman. Thus, in Armitage v. Hogan (25 Wn. 2d 672), which is quite similar to the present case, the high court of the State of Washington declared: “If it be admitted for the sake of argument that [defendant] respondent did agree to marry [plaintiff] appellant, and that the ring was purchased * * * in consideration of such promise, such agreement would be illegal and void, as appellant was, at that time, and in fact has at all times since been, a married man. * * * Regardless of the fact that appellant states this action is based on fraud and deceit, we are of the opinion that, under the facts in the case, appellant's claimed cause of action is based upon an illegal and an immoral transaction, and that this court should not lend its aid in furthering such transaction.”