Ah, every annoying property/contract student's favorite hypo: the engagement ring. What happens when a really expensive gift is made in contemplation of some future occurrence that never happens?
"Well, it depends."
Ah, every law school professor's favorite answer to their annoying students who don't understand that every single cleverly constructed hypothetical situation is doomed to be answered "well, it depends" or, "it's a question of fact for the jury" exactly because of its oh-so-clever construction.
Former Houston defensive end Mario Williams has presented the Texas courts with just such a question. In February 2012, a month before signing with the Bills, Williams proposed to Erin Marzouki with a $785,000 ring. Less than a year later, she "unilaterally terminated" the relationship. Naturally, since Williams spent six MLS rosters on it, he wants the ring back. When Marzouki refused to return it, he filed suit.
While the case snakes through the judicial system, he's asked the court to take control of the gift he presented one-time girlfriend/some-time fiancee/current ex-both-of-those-things in contemplation of marriage. Enough people have broken off engagements that most states have codified by statute or developed case law to answer the question "is an engagement ring a gift?"
Who cares what the ring is called?
You should care, if you ever plan on potentially marrying the wrong person. The distinction is important, though, mostly because of common sense. A gift is just that: a gift. Once you give someone something they shouldn't be forced to give it back.
Well that pretty much settles it then, right?
Unless! What if there are strings attached? This is what the law refers to as a conditional gift. "I give you X if condition Y is met." Think of some stupid plot device in a shitty soap opera or something. Grandma's will says I only inherit her millions if I pass college?!
OK, so an engagement ring is clearly a conditional gift.
Not quite. This is the law, so there are a zillion different ways to interpret one, ostensibly simple thing. Some states classify an engagement ring as a conditional gift, making marriage the condition that must be met to complete the gift. A completed gift is the common sense gift from above. Other states skip all this conditional nonsense and just call it a gift and if the marriage is called off, well, sucks for you.
The suspense is killing me.
Luckily for Mario Williams, Texas has taken the Serendipity-starring-Gordon-Gecko approach to marriage, so his three-quarter-million dollar ring is a conditional gift. Unfortunately for Williams, Texas has a fault element to the law. So the question becomes, who is at fault for the condition failing—why are these two people not getting married?
According to Williams, Marzouki "unilaterally terminated" the engagement. That's legalese for "it's her fault," but there could be any number of reasons these two didn't get married. The dispute has already made its way to court so, if Marzouki remains unwilling to yield, she will probably make the argument that it wasn't her fault (i.e. she did not "unjustifiably" terminate the agreement) and argue that it was Williams's fault. Such an argument could prevent Williams from benefitting under the conditional gift rule.
So, will he be able to get it back?
Well, it depends.
Photo credit: Getty