Family Law Corner: End of Romance Can Signal Start of Litigation When Pricey Engagement Ring is at Stake

The NFL’s highest paid defensive player, Mario Williams of the Buffalo Bills,
is suing his ex-fiancée for refusing to return her $785,000 diamond engagement ring.   In his suit, he says that the ex, Erin Marzouki, “unilaterally terminated” the engagement on January 21, 2013, and has refused Williams’ request to return the diamond engagement ring, which she had promised to do if the engagement ended.  Marzouki countered that Williams broke off the engagement at least five times and that he made the final decision to end the relationship.   She also released several pages of text messages from Williams in an attempt to paint him as emotionally unstable (perhaps to question his credibility?), including one which read, “[N]o money in the world should leave me with suicidal thoughts.”

The ownership of an engagement ring is a frequent subject of controversy in the initial stages of divorce, but it is usually quickly resolved.  In California, an engagement ring is a type of conditional gift—if the wedding occurs, the condition is met, and the recipient keeps the ring.  The California legislature even passed a statute to address the apparently common scenario of when the wedding does not occur.  California Civil Code Section 1590 states that where a party makes a gift on the assumption that a marriage will take place, in the event the recipient refuses to wed or in the event that the parties jointly call off the wedding, the “giver” may recover the gift.

It gets more complicated if the giver ends the engagement.  Presumably, in a “conditional gift” state, the recipient would get to keep the ring, as is apparently the case in Texas, where the Williams’ suit is pending.  However, in cases like this, where the ring is of significant value, it is unlikely that the parties will readily agree on who called off the wedding.  That is when the romance ends and litigation begins.  For Williams and Marzouki, it looks like they will be battling out that question in court and in the media.