In Your Court: Love, marriage and the engagement ring

With it still being February, I wanted to continue the theme of love and marriage. Last week, we reviewed the benefits of owning real property while married. This week, we’ll explore – who owns the engagement ring?

Illinois considers engagement rings to be conditional gifts in contemplation of marriage. The condition to be met is the subsequent marriage of the parties. Once the parties have married, then the condition for the gift is considered met and the engagement ring becomes the sole property of the recipient. As I married my wife, the engagement ring I used to propose to her is now her sole property.

The engagement ring is a unique item because the law traditionally does not recognize conditional gifts. As a rule of thumb, if you give someone a gift, there should be no strings attached.

So, who owns the engagement ring if the marriage is not performed? Well, there is an interesting case from 1939 known as Urbanus v. Burns, which states the rule – whoever breaches the contract of the engagement loses the claim to the engagement ring. And this story has a neat twist that I think you’ll enjoy.

Henry Urbanus became engaged to Loretta Burns in 1914 and gave her a diamond ring. The engagement was called off in 1917. However, in 1921, Henry began giving Loretta expensive gifts of jewelry on Christmas Eve, including, but not limited to, a diamond ring worth $750.

Unfortunately, Loretta passed away in 1935 without a will and before the parties married. A probate estate was opened and Loretta’s sisters and brother sought to inherit the aforementioned gifts. Henry brought suit against Loretta’s brother and sisters, stating the gifts were in contemplation of marriage and, because the marriage could not be consummated because of Loretta’s death, he was entitled to the return of the jewelry, including the ring.

However, the court found that Loretta’s passing did not constitute a breach of contract, and the jewelry, including the engagement ring, were awarded to Loretta’s family.  

• Anthony Scifo is a resident of Kane County and an associate attorney with Shaw, Jacobs, Goostree and Associates P.C. in St. Charles, where he concentrates in divorce and family law, personal injury and wrongful death. His goal with this occasional column is to help educate the public regarding the court system and the law. Contact him with general legal questions at editorial@kcchronicle.com.