Author: Teresa Cullen
This article was published in The Times on 3 November 2016
The American singer wants to keep the £8million that her former fiancé gave to her. Here is the legal situation.
Engagement rings vary from the jelly confectionery ring to the specially commissioned diamond variety. It was once thought that the third finger of the left hand had a special vein leading to the heart, the vein of love, hence the ring being worn on that finger. But what happens when things go wrong?
After the finalisation of her divorce it was widely reported that Cheryl Fernandez-Versini was asked by her former husband Jean Bernard Fernandez-Versini to return her engagement ring (thought to be worth £275,000) as part of the divorce settlement. It had been commissioned for her as a sign of his “unfailing and unconditional love”. No doubt media intrigue and her celebrity status affected Cheryl’s decision; she is said to be “set to return” it. But could she have kept the ring had she wished?
In short — yes. Section 3(2) of the Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1970 provides that an engagement ring is presumed to be an absolute gift unless it can be proved that it was given on condition it should be returned if the marriage did not take place.
Cheryl and Jean Bernard, who married in July 2014, and whose divorce is being dealt with in the Family Court in London, were therefore bound by English law. The engagement ring was an absolute gift to Cheryl and she had, therefore, no obligation to return it.
If the engagement ends before marriage, the giver would have to prove that they gave it on condition that it would be returned if the marriage did not take place. The condition can be expressed or implied — helpful, as very few engagements take place with terms and conditions attached to the flutes of champagne. This can be particularly useful if the ring has not only significant financial but also sentimental value, or is a family heirloom.
The cost of legal proceedings makes a claim specifically for recovery of an engagement ring unlikely, unless it had considerable monetary value. One member of the legal profession did bring a civil action a few years ago against his ex-fiancée for return of the engagement ring. He was unsuccessful, with the judge emphasising: “The onus is on the giver of the ring to present evidence to the satisfaction of the court that there was a condition on the gift of the engagement ring”, namely that it would be returned if the marriage did not take place. The court also confirmed that it would not get involved with the reasons, or apportion blame, for the engagement failing.
So when parting with an expensive ring, or one with sentimental significance, the happy couple should be aware of the law before the soon to be fiancé drops to one knee to propose. Perhaps Beyoncé should have added a rider to her lyric “if you liked it, then you should have put a ring on it” — adding that it is to be returned if all goes pear-shaped.
Teresa Cullen, Partner, Fladgate LLP (firstname.lastname@example.org)