In February 2012, a month before signing with the Buffalo Bills, former Houston Texan defensive end Mario Williams proposed to Erin Marzouki with a 10.04 carat diamond ring valued at $785,000.00. Less than a year later, Williams, a gridiron star at Richlands High School and N.C. State University before starring in the NFL, claims that Marzouki “unilaterally terminated” the relationship and wants her to return the pricey engagement ring.
If “the engagement should be so unfortunate as to be broken off, the engagement ring and all other gifts of value must be returned.”
A certain set of customs and rules of etiquette surround engagements and engagement rings. For instance, asking the bride-to-be’s father for her hand, planning the perfect proposal, picking the correct ring setting, and most importantly, selecting an appropriate diamond. The common norm suggests spending three months’ salary on a ring, not an insignificant amount of money for Williams whose contract with the Bills is valued at $100 million. Here is where etiquette and the law collide.
In a lawsuit filed in Harris County, Texas district court on May 3, 2013, Williams alleged that Marzouki broke off the engagement in January and never had any intention of marrying him. In addition to running away with the ring, Williams alleged that Marzouki used the relationship as a means to get at Williams’s money.
In the unfortunate circumstance of a broken engagement, many people rely on what feels right when deciding whether to return the ring. Standard customs state that a woman should return the ring if she cancels the wedding, but keep it if her fiancé calls it off. Etiquette expert Emily Post suggested that if “the engagement should be so unfortunate as to be broken off, the engagement ring and all other gifts of value must be returned.” However, there is a significant difference between what is expected by society and what the law requires. Due to the fact that societal norms usually guide people’s actions, many are not aware of what the law actually requires in situations similar to that of Mario Williams.
The majority of courts classify engagement rings as conditional gifts, and award the engagement ring to the giver in broken engagement cases.
In the battle over an engagement ring, law trumps etiquette. Engagement rings are inter vivos gifts in the eyes of the law. Generally, property law requires three elements to constitute a gift: the giver’s donative intent to give the item as a gift; the giver’s actual delivery of the gift; and the receiver’s acceptance of the gift. Typically when gifts are revoked, but all three requirements were shown, a court will hold that the given item was a gift and should remain with the recipient. This definition of a gift under property law essentially means that the proposer would likely fail in most instances if attempting to have the engagement ring returned.
However, the gift of an engagement ring occupies a special place in our society and is treated as a conditional gift by most courts. Conditional gifts are the exception to the rule that gifts cannot be revoked if properly given. A conditional gift is one where the giver gives the gift to the receiver with the expectation that some future event or action will take place. If the agreed-upon event does not occur or the agreed-upon condition is not met, then the gift-giver has the right to have the gift returned.
The majority of courts classify engagement rings as conditional gifts, and award the engagement ring to the giver in broken engagement cases. Courts typically reject the idea that the gift’s condition is the engagement, and instead hold that the condition to be met is the marriage. The marriage itself is considered a “condition precedent (pdf)” to the ultimate ownership of the ring. If the condition is not met, ownership of the ring does not vest in the receiver of the ring. Many, but not all, jurisdictions recognize the occurrence of the marriage as an implied condition. Therefore, in a broken engagement the condition is plainly not met, and the engagement ring is returned to the giver – regardless of who broke off the engagement.
Just like in a breach of contract, a broken engagement means that the parties were unable to fulfill the obligations of the agreement.
Because engagement rings fall under multiple areas of law, how they are classified varies by jurisdiction. In states like North Carolina, Mario Williams’s home-state, courts treat engagement rings as conditional gifts which must be returned to the gift-giver if the marriage does not take place, regardless of who broke off the engagement. Many states follow this no-fault, conditional gift approach, but a few states still classify the engagement ring as an unconditional gift and award the ring to the receiver.
Additionally, who keeps the ring may depend upon when it is given. Most courts have found that giving an engagement ring on a birthday or a holiday, such as Christmas or Valentine’s Day, makes the ring a simple gift rather than a conditional gift.
In some jurisdictions, another element is required when determining who keeps the ring. Some courts use a “fault-based” approach, holding that it is unfair for the person who caused the broken engagement to keep the engagement ring. Where the receiver is the cause of the broken engagement, the engagement ring will be awarded to the giver. Courts that use the fault-based approach treat the exchange of the ring as a transaction similar to a contract. The engagement ring is a symbol of the planned marriage. Just like in a breach of contract, a broken engagement means that the parties were unable to fulfill the obligations of the agreement and each should be restored to the position they would have been in prior to the engagement. The giver would then be awarded the engagement ring in a broken engagement.
Williams alleged that Marzouki not only “unilaterally terminated” the engagement but carried out a common-law fraud.
Texas law will control the fate of the ring Mario Williams wishes to be returned to his claimed rightful possession. Williams asserted that, under Texas law, his former fiancée is required to return the ring. Texas treats engagement rings as conditional gifts, but, unfortunately for Williams, the state also utilizes a fault-based approach. Under this approach, if the proposer has caused the engagement to be broken off the ring is considered the property of the receiver. If the receiver causes the break up, however, the ring belongs to the proposer and the ring must be returned.
Williams alleged that Marzouki not only “unilaterally terminated” the engagement but carried out a common-law fraud. Williams’s complaint asserted that Marzouki dated him solely as a means to get his money, that she promised him the diamond engagement ring would be returned to him in the event the pair did not marry, and that instead she “intended to break off the relationship and abscond with the diamond engagement ring.”
Marzouki obviously places blame on Williams, and it appears she may have a strong case. Marzouki alleged that Williams made it “abundantly clear in writing” that he wanted her to keep the ring after their last of many breakups in December. She also asserted that Williams communicated those wishes in text messages to her father and brother. In the court filings, Marzouki recounts more than one instance where Williams had cold feet about the marriage, alleging that Williams broke up with her several times, including a few days after the proposal during a vacation in the Bahamas. Marzouki had returned the ring upon returning to Texas, but the two later reconciled with Marzouki urging Williams to “be serious about marriage.”
The judge will likely make a determination of who is to blame for breaking off the engagement based upon the allegations from both sides. The moral of the story: make sure you are proposing to the right person, and most importantly, that your days of happily ever after are lived out in a jurisdiction that treats engagement rings as a conditional gift with a no-fault approach.