Will You Contract to Marry Me?
Engagements are more than a promise of love. In Louisiana caselaw, engagements are considered contracts that can be breached if a marriage doesn’t follow.
Though there is no formal contract to marry, courts have ruled that an engagement amounts to an informal agreement insofar as “a promise to marry” is made between parties during the engagement. Because an engagement is treated like a contract in the eyes of the law, a breach of promise to marry (or calling off an engagement) has traditionally been treated as a tort [i] in which damages may be awarded. Although there have been no Louisiana cases in the twenty-first century where a court has awarded damages for a breach of the promise to marry; [ii] in prior caselaw, to recover damages, the petitioner party must prove (1) that they are free from fault for the engagement ending and (2) that the ending of the engagement caused the damages suffered.
Interestingly, an engagement ring is not considered a gift in Louisiana Law, but it is actually considered a suspensive condition. This means that the ring can be recovered by the party proposing if the couple does not marry because it was “given in contemplation of marriage.” [iii]
The most recent case regarding engagement ring recovery in Louisiana originated in Livingston Parish. Wayne Ray Chutz, an elected judge on Louisiana’s 1st Circuit Court of Appeal, sued his ex-girlfriend, Ellyn Julia Clevenger, for the return of the $62,000 engagement ring given to Clevenger as part of a marriage proposal. [iv] Clevenger claims this gift was not in contemplation of marriage as she alleged that Chutz never intended to marry her.
In his petition, Chutz claimed he was the legal owner of the ring because it was given “in contemplation of” a marriage that never took place. Thus, under caselaw, the ring should be returned to his possession.
However, Clevenger presented a solid argument in opposition to his claims. Clevenger alleged that the ring was not actually an engagement ring because Chutz never actually intended to marry her. She alleged that Chutz gave her the ring to persuade her to get back together with him after the couple first split in 2014 and stop her from talking about marriage. She called the piece of jewelry a “shut her up ring.” Clevenger said, “He never actually asked me to marry him. We never set a date … He was very noncommittal about it.” Clevenger alleged that Chutz’s intentions were evident when he shut down her suggestions about setting a date or choosing a venue. She also said he allowed her to pick out a ring, which appeared one day on the table when she came home from work with no proposal.
Unfortunately, for current case law, this case was dismissed in February 2021 after Chutz discontinued the lawsuit. Both parties have great arguments, which would have been an interesting case to see play out in the courtroom. However, if Clevenger could provide substantial proof that the ring was not a gift in contemplation of marriage, Chutz likely would have won the case based on the outcomes of previous caselaw.
[i] § 8:10. Civil cause of action, Domestic Torts § 8:10.
[ii] See Morgan v. Yarborough, 5 La. Ann. 316, 317 (1850); Daigle v. Fournet, 141 So. 2d 406, 407 (La. Ct. App. 1962); Glass v. Wiltz, 551 So. 2d 32, 32 (La. Ct. App.), writ denied, 552 So. 2d 400 (La. 1989).
[iii] Busse v. Lambert, 00-1032 (La. App. 5 Cir. 10/31/00), 773 So. 2d 182, writ denied, 2000-3224 (La. 1/26/01), 782 So. 2d 633; Daigle v. Fournet, 141 So. 2d 406 (La. Ct. App. 1962)