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Let's get married...or not

Today is my twenty first wedding anniversary. When my husband, Larry Kohn, and I got married, I had just finished my second year of law school and he had just graduated from law school himself. (With two lawyers for parents, my tween daughter rarely gets a chance to get a word in edgewise, though that doesn’t seem to stop her from talking!) A question I didn’t ask then but have had occasion to research/litigate since is: what happens if the marriage is called off? More specifically, does the no-longer-bride have to return the ring to the no-longer-groom? Are the deposits for the dj (does anyone hire a band anymore?), the flowers and the venue forfeited? Theoretical legal questions surrounding issues of love and marriage didn’t interest me much at the time, given my preoccupation with dress shopping, cake tasting and honeymoon planning. But with nineteen years of marriage under my belt, now seems like a fine time to review the answers (and some interesting cases) I’ve found over the years in Georgia law about these delicate (but not uncommon) problems.

The Ring: Some rings get thrown at the original giver, some get pawned and some are calmly returned so as to remove the reminder of a relationship unfulfilled. In general, Georgia law sees engagement rings as conditional gifts – a gift given in contemplation of marriage – and if that marriage does not occur, the condition remains unfulfilled and the ring must be returned. But would-be suitors should confirm first whether their intended is already married before proposing with a ring. In Morgan v. Wright, 219 Ga. 385 (1963), the petitioner sought return of the ring he gave to his fiancé, whom he knew to be married already at the time. The Georgia Supreme Court took a dim view of the petitioner’s action, stating that his “deliberate attempt to take another man’s wife from him, and entering into an engagement with her to marry at a time when she could not lawfully marry, and giving a ring to further such an unlawful engagement is a defiance of public policy and constitutes the rankest sort of unclean hands.” Id. at 387. Lesson learned: declare your love and propose marriage after your would-be spouse relieves herself from her current marital encumbrance or be guilty of “the rankest sort of unclean hands.”

The DJ: In classic lawyer fashion, the answer to what happens to the deposits is: it depends. In regard to the vendors themselves, the contract will control. Whichever party signed the contract will be responsible to that vendor according to the terms of the agreement. As between the parties, however, there may be an argument as to who is responsible for these lost sums. Georgia has long recognized an action for breach of promise to marry. Parker v. Forehand, 99 Ga. 743 (1896). It has further set out the measure of damages in such cases: “The plaintiff is entitled to recover not only an indemnity for her pecuniary loss, and the disappointment of her reasonable expectations of material and worldly advantage resulting from the intended marriage, but also compensation for wounded feelings, and the mortification and pain which she has been wrongfully made to undergo, and for the harm that has been done to her prospects in life.” Id. at 746 (internal quotes and citation omitted). Indeed, the Georgia Supreme Court takes a dim view of those who break their engagements without good cause: “How can the defendant in the present case, who offers no excuse for his ignoble offense against decency and propriety, in good faith claim that the consequences flowing directly from his wrongful act were such as could not reasonably be expected and clearly foreseen as a necessary result of a breach of the sacred obligation he had voluntarily assumed.” Id. at 745. Practical suggestion? If you break it off, you buy it.

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