ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Jeremy Telman
Oklahoma City University
School of Law

Monday, October 23, 2023

Can You Recover An Engagement Ring If You Are Already Married When You Proposed?

PaulaMy Associate Dean, Paula Dalley (left),  abandoned her usual haunts, allowing the steady stream of tasks, duties, distractions, requests, alerts, and demands, each accompanied by its own unique levels of exigency, to accumulate unmolested behind her, much as catastrophes mount behind Paul Klee's Angelus Novus as described by Walter Benjamin in imagining the Angel of History.  She appeared in my very office unannounced, and shorn of the dignity and authority in which she is habitually cloaked, and handed me a piece of paper so thin and transient that it was already becoming  brittle and yellow, although it was only a couple of months old.  It was a page from some obscure digest of the sort that private law scholars of a certain age are wont to peruse (in the manner of its ancient usage).  "Maybe this is something you would want for your blog thing," Dean Dalley proposed. 

And yet that humble sheet harbored a brilliant gemstone.  

The case involved a dispute over an engagement ring, which is a topic about which I posted not so long ago, recounting the very dishy case of Johnson v. Settino.

Summarizing the case of Campbell v. Tang, the digest read:

A gift given by a [donor] to a [donee] on condition that [the donee] embark on the sea of matrimony with [the donor] is no different from a gift based on the condition that the donee sail on any other sea. If, after receiving the provisional gift, the donee refuses to leave the harbor, -- if the anchor of contractual performance sticks in the sands of irresolution and procrastination -- the gift must be restored to the donor.

Alas, that part of the opinion was a quotation from Pavlicic v. Vogtsberger, a Pennsylvania Supreme Court case from 1957.  But Campbell v. Tang ain't bad, for those who like this kind of case.

Mrs. RochesterThe couple met through  Mr. Campbell represented that he was divorced.  The couple met in 2016, were engaged in 2017, and started living together at some point before the  wedding date, which was scheduled for early 2018.  At the time of their engagement, Mr. Campbell presented Ms. Tang with the diamond engagement ring and necklace at issue in the case.

Mr. Campbell requested that Ms. Tang sign a prenuptial agreement, and she eventually retained a lawyer to advise her on that matter.  It was her attorney who discovered that Mr. Campbell was in fact still married.  Ms. Tang broke off the engagement and left the couple's shared residence, apparently never having cracked the house's many mysteries: an unexplained piece of red fabric hanging from the open window of an abandoned upper room, her future husband's bed set ablaze during the night, the dour house attendant who guarded the third- floor room off the gallery, and the room itself, which Ms. Tang never dared approach.  

You think the parallels between this case and Jane Eyre wholly invented?  Well get this!  Mr. Campbell explained that, while he and his wife were long separated, he could not divorce her because she needed to retain his healthcare coverage.  He also liked the extra tax exemption he derived form their continued matrimony.  Okay, I admit it.  There was no reference in Jane Eyre to the tax advantages of having Bertha Mason residing in Mr. Rochester's attic. Not exactly Gothic, that.

Ms. Tang retained her engagement ring and accompanying necklace when she broke off the engagement.  After trial, the jury allowed Ms. Tang to keep both items.  But Pennsylvania is not Massachusetts.  As readers may recall, in Massachusetts, courts decide engagement ring disputes by determining which party was "at fault" for the breakup.  Pennsylvania adopts one of the sensible rules available: engagement rings are conditional gifts that must be returned if the couple never weds.  

But wait (and this is sweet!).  The Pennsylvania appellate court reasons that the jewelry that Mr. Campbell gave Ms. Tang was not a conditional gift.  He was already married and so he lacked capacity to become engaged.  Thus no conditions attached to his gift to Ms. Tang, and she should retain it, notwithstanding their breakup.

I love this case.  I love it so much, I may teach it as a supplement to my section on incapacity defenses.  It is a case of first impression in Pennsylvania, and I don't know how often the issue arises, but it provides an interesting exploration of the concept of capacity.  Also, it might be an opportunity to discuss legal realism with students.  Is the Pennsylvania court inventing a rule because it doesn't think people should lie to their betrotheds about their marital status?

Recent Cases, Teaching | Permalink


This is an interesting case for the Contracts Listserv: Doctrine vs Legal Realism

Posted by: John Wladis | Oct 25, 2023 9:31:49 PM

I would not teach this case in Contracts for two reasons. First, the law of conditional gifts is really a property law issue not a contract law issue. It is about whether the transfer of property was absolute or not. Second, the court's discussion of impossibility is highly questionably. Surely the donor could have divorced his wife during the marriage, so performance was not impossible. It might not even have been impracticable. I would be concerned that students reading this case would be misled about what constitutes impossibility/impracticability for contract law purposes.

Posted by: Stephen Sepinuck | Nov 3, 2023 8:03:33 AM

Three responses to Professor Sepinuck. One is that I often teach cases that I think are wrongly decided, but I acknowledge the danger of confusion. Second, I don't think the case is about impossibility or impracticability at all. The court mentions neither doctrine and speaks only of capacity. I can imagine the argument that incapacity and impossibility amount to the same thing in this context, but as you well know, it is not unusual for multiple causes of actions or defenses to arise from the same constellation of facts. Third, many doctrinal faculty attempt to resist the siloing effects of the first-year curriculum. Life does not neatly divide into legal categories. It is valuable for first year students to understand the ways in which their courses overlap and how matters that are relevant to one subject matter might also arise when discussing a distinct but not entirely separate body of law. But as with any other decision about what cases to teach, I respect your exercise of discretion in this matter.

Posted by: Jeremy Telman | Nov 3, 2023 8:27:06 AM

Interesting. At one time married wives lacked capacity to make a contract. Now married husbands? Capacity is usually all or nothing. Perhaps this case is better as an example of the advantage of the fault approach for engagement rings. I'm not a huge fan of the fault approach. The fault approach has its own problems but in an extreme case like this it might be suitable.

Posted by: Richard Carlson | Nov 3, 2023 11:09:47 AM

All or nothing? Yes, in the context of infancy, but not in the context of mental capacity, right? There, isn't the question, was the party competent to enter into _this_ agreement at _this_ time? An incompetent person might be competent for some contracting but not others. In this case, Mr. Campbell would have been competent to enter into most contracts, but not this one.

Like you, I'm no fan of the fault approach, and like you and Professor Sepinuck, I have my doubts about the seemingly targeted legal reasoning here, which is why I think legal realism might have something to say about this case.

Posted by: Jeremy Telman | Nov 3, 2023 12:33:00 PM