Stock photo of an engagement ring. Courtesy of Wikimedia

ITHACA, N.Y. — Guys, you can put a ring on it. Just don’t expect it back.

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Two local judges have now ruled against Brian Hunter, 26, of Horseheads, who took his former fiancé to court over a $8,800 two-carat engagement ring he bought her in February 2014.

State law would appear to support Hunter. As both judges in the case said, givers of engagement rings are generally entitled to get them back if the marriage is called off.

But there’s an important hitch. The giver of an engagement ring only has the right to it if “the sole reason for the gift is the contemplated marriage,” according to court papers filed in the case.

In other words, the ring must be returned only if it’s given explicitly in exchange for someone’s hand in marriage. The judges found that this wasn’t true in Hunter’s case.

The 11-month-long court wrangling over the ring ended earlier this month, with Tompkins County Court Judge John Rowley affirming an earlier decision by Ithaca City Court Scott Miller.

The ring itself was actually lost when someone — it’s not clear who — threw it out a car window and onto the road, court records say. Hunter filed a claim last year saying he wanted either the gift back or close to $4,000 in compensation for his loss.

‘A different ring under the law’

Both judges, however, found that Hunter didn’t actually meet the legal standard for getting the ring back. That’s because of what he said — or, more accurately, didn’t say — the second time he gave the engagement ring. (She had returned it to him after their first break-up.)

“Mr. Hunter, when he gave the ring a second time … did not use the words, ‘Will you marry me?’ or, ‘Spend the rest of your life with me,’” Judge Miller said in a court hearing last fall. “Instead, Mr. Hunter, from his own testimony, stated ‘Let’s continue to work on this.’”

According to Judge Miller, Hunter’s second giving of the ring wasn’t sufficiently enough about marriage for it to have to be returned. That’s true even though Hunter’s initial marriage proposal was about spending “the rest of his life with him,” Miller said.

“The second time the ring was given, it’s a different ring under the law,” Miller said, according to court transcripts.

“The giving of the ring was no longer conditioned solely upon contemplation of marriage … The crucial words of, ‘Will you spend the rest of your life with me, or will you marry me?’ were not uttered.”

Stock photo of an engagement ring. Courtesy of Wikimedia

Hunter appealed the ruling. “I do not agree with the decision made that labels the engagement ring as a ‘gift,’” he said in a written appeal. “What I did say, which was never mentioned in the hearing due to stress and unclear thought, was that I told (her) to ‘take the ring while we work through this engagement.’”

But Judge Rowley, of the higher Tompkins County Court, disagreed. Rowley cited several instances of legal precedent in backing Miller’s earlier ruling.

“The lower court’s decision is based on the rules and principles of substantive law, is not clearly erroneous and meets the test of providing substantial justice under the law,” Rowley wrote.

Despite the legalese, the case wasn’t without its lighter moments. When Hunter noted that he got a discount on the ring because he worked at Kay Jewelers, Judge Miller asked, “So you’re an engagement ring expert?

Both sides laughed, according to the court transcript.

“Well, you folks are broken up and now you’re already laughing,”  Miller said. “You’re not allowed to leave here and go on another date. That’s an order of the Court. Okay?”

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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.