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Aronow v. Silver

Decided: November 17, 1987.


Haines, A.j.s.c.


Philip Aronow, plaintiff, and Elizabeth Silver, defendant, were engaged to be married. The engagement was a stormy one. Problems arose involving the parties themselves and their relatives. On three occasions, Elizabeth cancelled the engagement and returned the engagement ring, only to recant. Finally, with the marriage ceremony a few days away, the engagement was broken irretrievably. Each party, in this resulting litigation, faults the other. Each claims the engagement ring, certain shares of stock and a jointly-owned condominium. Robert and Cybil Silver, Elizabeth's parents, seek reimbursement for various wedding expenses incurred by them. This opinion, which follows a trial of the liability issues, concludes (1) that Philip is entitled to the engagement ring and the condominium; (2) that he has no liability to the parents, and (3) that the stock transactions require adjustments.*fn1

A. The Law Concerning Engagement Rings

The majority rule in this country concerning the disposition of engagement rings is a fault rule: the party who unjustifiably breaks the engagement loses the ring. The minority rule rejects fault. See Annotation, "Rights in Respect of Engagement and Courtship Presents When Marriage Does Not Ensue,"

46 A.L.R. 3d 578 (1972); Annotation, (same title), 24 A.L.R. 2d 579 (1952); 38 C.J.S., Gifts, Sec. 61. New Jersey courts have considered the question in only four published opinions, with split results. This court, not bound by any of those opinions, joins the minority.

Our earliest case is Sloin v. Lavine, 11 N.J.Misc. 899 (Sup.Ct.1933), in which the court, citing the law of foreign jurisdictions, said:

So we have on the merits the simple case of an engagement ring and engagement broken and ring not returned. The decisions are not numerous, but we follow those holding what we deem the correct rule, viz., that such a gift is impliedly conditional, and must be returned, particularly when the engagement is broken by the donee, as the court was entitled to find in this case. [at 900]

Sloin's implication that the person who breaks the engagement loses the ring was rejected by Judge (later Justice) Sullivan in Albanese v. Indelicato, 25 N.J.Misc. 144 (D.Ct.1947). The decision involved ownership of an engagement ring and a dinner ring. The court said:

As far as the engagement ring is concerned, the defendant had no right to keep it. An engagement ring is a symbol or pledge of the coming marriage and signifies that the one who wears it is engaged to marry the man who gave it to her. If the engagement is broken off the ring should be returned since it is a conditional gift. True, no express condition was imposed but the law implies a condition because of the symbolic significance of the ring. It does not matter who broke the engagement. A person may have the best reasons in the world for so doing. The important thing is that the gift was conditional and the condition was not fulfilled.

The giving of the dinner ring is an entirely different proposition. True, it was given after the parties became engaged. No doubt plaintiff would not have given the ring to defendant if they had not been engaged. The dinner ring though, has no symbolic meaning and is only a token of the love and affection which plaintiff bore for the defendant. Many gifts are made for reasons that sour with the passage of time. Under the law though, there is no consideration required for a gift and it is absolute once made unless a condition is imposed. There was no express condition here and the law will not imply one as in the case of the engagement ring since the dinner ring has no symbolic meaning attached to it. Defendant was under no obligation to return the dinner ring. [at 144-145; citations omitted]

Albanese cited Sloin and a Pennsylvania case.

In the next case, Mate v. Abrahams, 62 A.2d 754 (N.J.Cty.Ct.1948), the court imposed a fault standard, saying:

In short, both on reason and authority, an engagement ring, being given as a symbol or pledge of a mutual agreement to marry, can be recovered by the man, if that agreement is dissolved by mutual consent, or the woman unjustifiably breaks off the engagement, but cannot be recovered by him, if he unjustifiably breaks the agreement it evidences. [at 755]

Mate cited general authorities and cases from other jurisdictions, quoting from Jacobs v. Davis, 2 K.B. 332 (1917), referred to ...

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