Hart of the Issue: A promise of unconditional love

By John M. Hart, III, Esq.

It’s February, and while we are growing tired of the chilly dismal days, we make a last-ditch effort to warm our hearts with Valentine’s Day.  It’s a holiday that clearly pales in comparison to Christmas, or even New Year’s, but it’s something that gives us a reason to celebrate and breakaway from the humdrum of winter. 

Dunmore is certainly well-equipped to handle this holiday. Flowers, cards, and chocolates are the staple gifts. And Dunmore is blessed with chocolatiers. 

While my fondest memories of chocolate as a kid came from Easter or Halloween, there would be an occasional chocolate-covered strawberry that I would pilfer from the counter, as they clearly were not for me. For a kid, Valentine’s Day meant Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Spiderman, or Power Ranger Valentine’s Day cards that I would get at Fay’s or Jamesway and eagerly distribute amongst classmates at school.

But Valentine’s Day gifts can get rather pricey too. Some people go all out on their significant other with jewelry.  My wife and I personally celebrate with a nice night out for dinner, oftentimes not even on Feb. 14, because to us, it’s not about the hype of the holiday, but just another opportunity for us to enjoy one another’s company. 

For those extremely love-struck souls, Valentine’s Day is a stereotypical day for them to pop the question… the BIG question.  There are pros and cons to proposing to your significant other on Valentine’s Day.  One glaring pro that sticks out to me is that the forgetful spouse will never forget when their anniversary is!  

Another pro is that the couple will save money on gifts since the present exchange will be consolidated into one event. As a lawyer, there is one con that I cannot ignore and would caution people before proposing on Valentine’s Day.

If you’ve gotten serious enough to consider proposing to your significant other, then you need a ring.  And rings are more expensive than flowers or even the finest decadent silky-smooth morsel of chocolate our local confectioners’ shops can prepare.  

As traditions evolved, a ring has become more than just a sign of commitment.  It is also an investment, because oftentimes, people think they have to spend a large chunk on an engagement ring as proof of their willingness to enter into this agreement.  And that’s the magic word for us lawyers… agreement.

I recall sitting in Contracts class in law school when this question was posed.  If an engagement is called off and the one individual decides not to marry the other, who gets the ring? And I’ve actually had clients call to ask this same question, so I’m glad I was listening in class that day.  And like most other answers to client’s questions, this response is the same… it depends.  Different states address this fact pattern differently and because there is so much variation amongst courts from state to state, the question becomes rather complicated.  

In Pennsylvania, the general rule is that an engagement ring is considered a conditional gift, meaning that it is given with the expectation that the wedding will take place. If the wedding is called off by the person who received the ring, they are typically expected to return the ring to the person who gave it to them. 

That doesn’t sound too complicated, so why is it?  The simple answer is that lawyers use creativity.  

There may be exceptions to this rule depending on the specific circumstances of the situation. 

A legal matter involves laws and facts.  And when the law isn’t clear, or even on your side for that matter, a lawyer will use the facts to their advantage.  Let’s say you do propose on Valentine’s Day and your significant other says yes and you give that person a ring. What other facts would be needed if the wedding is called off and the ring recipient refuses to return the ring?  Arguably none.  Who’s to say that ring wasn’t a Valentine’s Day gift.  In addition to the ring, were there other gifts exchanged? Was the ring the only thing?  

Maybe it seems obvious that it was an engagement ring, but that’s an argument left up to a jury to decide.  Facts split numerous ways and there are always two sides to every story. It is always best to consult with an attorney if you have any questions about the legal implications of returning an engagement ring in Pennsylvania. 

And fortunately, people have known enough to call Hart Law in the past on this very issue.  If you’re one of those unlucky individuals who has a wedding called off, contact  us and we’ll go over the law with you, and certainly discuss the facts of your specific circumstances. 

So, enjoy Valentine’s Day–and if you don’t want any surprises–stick to the flowers and chocolates.  Perhaps consider proposing on another day of the year if you want to avoid ambiguity.  Oh, and it goes without saying, but it would be wise to avoid the other holidays for the same reasons above.

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