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Broken Engagements / Give Back
the Ring

by Wes Cowell; updated 30 September 2016 -- suggest a correction

Breach-of-Promise to marry lawsuits were abolished 1/1/2016.  If you shelled out a lot of money for invitations, a hall, a caterer, a church, a dress, etc., you'll need a real contract — a wedding costs contract to recover any damages for being left at the altar.  Perhapsadding insult to injury, engagement rings go back if the wedding is calledoff.  Need advice?  Callleave your info, or schedule a consult.


You Need a Written Contract:  "Breach of promise" lawsuits started in William Shakespear's England.  Common law "breach of promise" lawsuits date back to a time when marriages were closely negotiated between families and were all about acquiring lands and wealth.  A breach back then was a real problem . . . and a real lawsuit.  


These cases began to be abused by con men and shysters.  In fact, by the height of the Great Depression, the abuse was so bad that Illinois actually passed a law making it illegal to file one of these lawsuits.  The law was re-enacted, with changes and enough restrictions that the former abuses were no longer a problem.


Then, in 2016, th elegislature again abollished these types of lawsuits. Here's why:  the wedding planning industry rakes in over $72 billion a year in this coutry and the average wedding costs north of $30,000.  On the other hand, it’s estimated that about 1 in 5 engagements doesn’t make it down the aisle.  Most wedding planning is done by the bride-to-be and her mother.  When weddings were cancelled, grooms were looking at HUGE liabilities . . . over which they had never consented and had little or no control.  In Wildey v. Springs, 47 F.3d 1475 (7th Cir., 1995), a jury awarded $178,000 to a jilted fiancée (and the judge upheld $118,000).


Today, if you want to hold your soon-to-be-spouse to have to share in the costs of a wedding that never happens, you'll need a written contract explaining who will pay which bills or how the parties will reimburse each other. 


Give Back the Ring:  Once an engagement is broken, what is to be done with the engagement ring?  Some states (Montana, for example) follow a “once-the-ring-is-given-it’s-a-gift-and-may-be-kept-by-the-recipient" approach.  That’s called an “unconditional gift.”  Other states (like California) look to see who is to blame for the break-up to determine whether the ring goes back or not.  That’s called an “implied conditional gift.”


Illinois doesn’t follow either of those rules.  In Illinois, the ring goes back each and every time . . . always.  We call the ring a “conditional gift.”  Engagement rings are gifts given on the condition of something (the marriage) happening later.  When the condition doesn’t happen – regardless of fault – the ring(s) go back to the giver.  The Second District Appellate Court said "an engagement ring is a gift conditional on the subsequent marriage of the parties, and when the condition is not fulfilled, the donee no longer has any right to the ring.  Vann v. Vehrs, 260 Ill.App.3d 649 (2d Dist., 1994).


If you try to do the look-to-see-whose-fault-it-is analysis, the investigation just gets too messy.  What do you do with a groom who calls off a wedding because the bride began to put on weight?  Whose fault is that?  What about a bride who calls it off when she learns her fiancé harbors political beliefs she finds repugnant?  Whose fault is that?  Illinois courts just stay out of that quagmire and say “give the ring back, every time.”


If you give an engagement ring to your betrothed, break off the engagement, and don’t get the ring back, hire a lawyer to file a “replevin” action.


“I Want My Records Back:”  What about all the other stuff that is exchanged between engaged couples who later break up?  Couples start planning a wedding and before you know it they’re moving in together and buying plasma TVs, dogs, furniture, cars and on and on.  Again, work with a lawyer to file a “replevin” action.



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