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What Happens to Engagement Rings in a Partition Action?

One of the most common reasons that a partition action is filed is because a co-owner who was previously in a relationship with their other co-owner now wants to sell the house, but their ex refuses. It’s not uncommon for one property owner to add their soon-to-be spouse to the title of their home in anticipation of a forthcoming marriage. The decision to force the sale of property that is jointly owned by ex-fiancés is further complicated when there is an engagement ring involved. Fortunately, the legal experts at Talkov Law are well-versed in managing more than 300 partition actions across California, providing solutions for a wide range of unique situations, including those involving engagement rings.

Civil Code § 1590 Provides Authority on Gifts Given in Contemplation of Marriage

Under California Civil Code § 1590, “where the donee refuses to marry or where the marriage is given up by mutual consent, a donor ordinarily may maintain an action to recover a gift given in contemplation of the marriage, including gifts of engagement rings.”[1]35 Cal. Jur. 3d Gifts § 37 (citing Priebe v. Sinclair (1949) 90 Cal. App. 2d 79).

Civil Code § 1590 provides that: “Where either party to a contemplated marriage in this State makes a gift of money or property to the other on the basis or assumption that the marriage will take place, in the event that the donee refuses to enter into the marriage as contemplated or that it is given up by mutual consent, the donor may recover such gift or such part of its value as may, under all of the circumstances of the case, be found by a court or jury to be just.”

Engagement ring is recoverable if “the donee refuses to enter into the marriage as contemplated or that it is given up by mutual consent”

In Stienback v. Halsey (1953) 115 Cal.App.2d 213, the plaintiff successfully sued the defendant under Civil Code § 1590 for recovery of property made to the defendant after she agreed to marry him. In affirming the lower court’s judgment, the appellate court noted that “defendant, by her acts and conduct and the acceptance of gifts, implied a promise to marry ‘without further delay’ and that it was defendant’s intention ‘to extract as much property from the plaintiff as possible without, at any time, having any intention of entering into the marriage relation.’”[2]Stienback v. Halsey, (1953) 115 Cal.App. 2d 213, 219.

In deciding who is entitled to keep the engagement ring, one court framed the issue as follows: “By reason of section 1590 of the Civil Code did plaintiff become entitled to recover the ring upon the termination of the engagement? The answer to this question is dependent on which party broke the engagement.[3]Priebe v. Sinclair (1949) 90 Cal.App. 2d 79, 84.

If you are the party who gifted the ring on the basis or assumption that the marriage will take place, but you refused to enter into the marriage, the gift is generally not recoverable. This is because the law requires that defendants meet the burden to show the element that “the donee refuses to enter into the marriage as contemplated or that it is given up by mutual consent.” As one recent, unpublished opinion explained, “where the donor is the cause of the failure of the condition, the gift is not recoverable.”[4]Mondrian v. Kaur (E.D. Cal., Feb. 9, 2021, No. 121CV00151DADJLT) 2021 WL 465284, at *3.

Engagement ring is recoverable if it was a gift “on the basis or assumption that the marriage will take place”

Keep in mind that whether the donor of property will be entitled to recovery may depend on whether the court perceives the property to be a gift. A gift is a “transfer of property without consideration.”[5]Shaw v. Shaw (1964) 227 Cal.App. 2d 159, 163. Stienback exemplifies that the court will not necessarily order that all the property obtained under the alleged agreement of marriage be returned to the donor because some objects may be deemed to be a gift not in contemplation of marriage.[6]Stienback v. Halsey, (1953) 115 Cal.App. 2d 213, 215. For example, the court in Stienback allowed “defendant to retain certain luggage, perfumery, clothing and money which apparently were found to be gifts.[7]Stienback v. Halsey, (1953) 115 Cal.App. 2d 213, 215. Thus, ordinary gifts not on the basis or assumption that marriage will take place are not recoverable.

Example Application of Civil Code § 1590

Suppose Alex proposes to Jill with a valuable engagement ring and gifts various items in anticipation of marriage, but Jill unilaterally ends the engagement. California’s Civil Code § 1590 allows Alex, who made the gifts under the assumption of marriage, to potentially reclaim them since the marriage did not occur due to Jill’s decision to call off the engagement. The engagement ring, as a conditional gift linked to the marriage taking place, becomes a primary candidate for recovery by Alex, supported by legal precedents that favor the return of such gifts when the engagement is broken by the recipient of the gift. Other gifts, including designer clothes, a laptop, and a car down payment, might also be recoverable, though their return depends on demonstrating that they were given in direct anticipation of the marriage.

Partition of Personal Property

Just as an engagement ring may be a piece of personal property at issue in a partition action, the court in California has found that personal property among co-owners may be subject to a partition. The court in Rutledge reasoned “[w]hen several persons are co-owners of real or personal property any one or more of the co-owners may file an action for partition. It then becomes the duty of the court to partition the same and if this cannot be done without great prejudice to such owners, it is the duty of the court to cause the property to be sold and to partition the proceeds among them according to their respective interests.”[8]Rutledge v. Rutledge, 119 Cal.App. 2d 114, 118–19 (citing former California Code of Civil Procedure sections 752, 752a). The partition of personal property is generally done in conjunction with the partition of real property in order to obtain an efficient result with the lowest possible legal fees.

How to Handle Engagement Rings in a Partition Action

The litigation strategy for an engagement ring in a partition action involving real property generally depends on the value of the engagement ring, particularly in relation to the equity in the real property.

For example, if the parties purchased a $1,000,000 house during the engagement, each providing $500,000 in cash, fighting over an engagement that cost $10,000 probably isn’t worth the trouble. The better strategy is to get the house sold to a third party of one of the co-owners for fair value to end the dispute.

However, if the parties purchased a $1,000,000 house during the engagement, each providing $100,000 in cash while borrowing $800,000 on a mortgage (deed of trust), a ring valued at $100,000 might make sense to dispute. In this example, the donor of the ring would receive $200,000 if they recover the ring, but only $100,000 if they let the donee keep the ring. Thus, the ring may be a more important factor in the litigation, and any settlement of that litigation.[9]This example ignores the costs of sale of the house, which would diminish the $200,000 in projected equity, and also ignores the likely conclusion that the $100,000 “value” of the ring … Continue reading

Hiring a partition attorney who keeps their eye on the financial benefits of the litigation strategy is critical to obtaining the optimal monetary outcome.

Give Talkov Law a Call Today

Ending both a romantic relationship and a co-ownership relationship is never easy, but the seasoned partition lawyers at Talkov Law have experience handling partition actions throughout California. If your ex-fiancé(e) is refusing to sell a home you co-own together and there are related engagement ring issues, contact Talkov Law for a free, 15 minute consultation at (844) 4-TALKOV (825568) or contact us online today.

References

References
1 35 Cal. Jur. 3d Gifts § 37 (citing Priebe v. Sinclair (1949) 90 Cal. App. 2d 79).
2 Stienback v. Halsey, (1953) 115 Cal.App. 2d 213, 219.
3 Priebe v. Sinclair (1949) 90 Cal.App. 2d 79, 84.
4 Mondrian v. Kaur (E.D. Cal., Feb. 9, 2021, No. 121CV00151DADJLT) 2021 WL 465284, at *3.
5 Shaw v. Shaw (1964) 227 Cal.App. 2d 159, 163.
6, 7 Stienback v. Halsey, (1953) 115 Cal.App. 2d 213, 215.
8 Rutledge v. Rutledge, 119 Cal.App. 2d 114, 118–19 (citing former California Code of Civil Procedure sections 752, 752a).
9 This example ignores the costs of sale of the house, which would diminish the $200,000 in projected equity, and also ignores the likely conclusion that the $100,000 “value” of the ring was the retail value paid by the donor, for which the wholesale value to sell it back to a jewelry store may be half this sum.
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