The 2007 case of Papathanasopoulos v Vacopoulos asked the question: if you accept an engagement ring in expectation of marriage, but later change your mind, do you have to return the ring? The Court’s answer was yes.

Andrew Vacopoulos and Vicki Papathanasopoulos were a couple who were engaged to be married on 6 August 2005, when Andrew presented Vicki with a ring worth $15,250. About ten days later, their relationship deteriorated, and Vicki took off the ring and said to Andrew: “the wedding is off. Here take the ring, I don’t want it”. Andrew said to Vicki “the ring was a gift, you keep it”.

Several weeks after this conversation, the ring was still in Vicki’s possession. At her request, Vicki’s father threw the ring and other items she associated with Andrew into a rubbish bin, never to be seen again.

Andrew later brought proceedings to recover the ring or its value from Vicki, on the basis that the gift of the ring was conditional upon her marrying him. By not marrying him, she had not met the conditions of the gift, and thus it was not rightfully hers.

Vicki argued that while the ring was a conditional gift when Andrew first gave it to her, it became an absolute gift when Andrew refused to take it back at the end of the relationship. Thus, the ring was hers to do what she pleased with, despite not marrying Andrew.

The Court referred to the 1926 case of Cohen v Stellar in which McCardie J outlined the principles of law relating to engagement rings:

  1. If someone who has received a ring in contemplation of marriage refuses to fulfil the conditions of the gift, without a legal justification, they must return it.
  2. If someone has, without a legal justification, refused to carry out their promise of marriage, they cannot demand the return of the ring.
  3. If an engagement to marry is dissolved by mutual consent, then in the absence of agreement to the contrary, the engagement ring and like gifts must be returned by each party to the other.

A legal justification, in these circumstances, would refer to the other party’s violent conduct or infidelity. No such justifications existed in Papathanasoloulos v Vacopoulos.

At first instance, the Magistrate found that upon rejecting the gift, Vicki became the bailee of the ring: it was in her possession but she did not own it, and therefore she did not have the right to throw it out. It was likely that, when told the wedding was off, Andrew said whatever he could in the hopes that the relationship could continue. This did not change the nature of the gift.

On Appeal, this finding was upheld. As un-romantic as it is, the Court opined that engagements are ‘fixed with many of the characteristics of a commercial bargain’ and thus are governed by principles of ordinary contract law. Put simply, a person who does not carry out a bargain will lose their deposit. This meant that Vicki, by ending the engagement, lost her entitlement to the ring even if Andrew refused to take it back. Her appeal was dismissed and she was ordered to pay Andrew his legal costs, as well as the value of the ring.