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Broken courtship in court Would-be groom says ring was not a gift

She said yes to his proposal but no to a prenup.

So he said no to the marriage but yes to the parting gift.

The parting gift is a four-prong diamond engagement ring, valued at almost $50,000.

Now, Louis J. Billittier Jr. wants the ring back, but Christa M. Clark, his ex-fiancee, has said no, prompting Billittier to file a lawsuit in State Supreme Court in Buffalo to force her to return the ring.

Established law sides with would-be grooms – they have a legal right to claim the ring back if there is no marriage, even if the groom calls off the wedding.

But a text message Billittier sent to Clark after the break-up makes this engagement ring dispute more complicated.

It just might lead the judge handling the case to say no to him and yes to her.

In Billittier's text message, he promised to reimburse her for any money she already spent on the wedding.

And then he wrote the words that might make the text message in question the most-expensive one he will ever send:

"Plus you get a $50,000 parting ring. Enough for a down payment on a house."

After Billittier's lawyer contacted Clark's lawyer about getting back the engagement ring, Clark's lawyer replied expressing "surprise."

Billittier's "re-characterization of the ring as a parting gift" makes the ring a gift that has nothing to do with a contract for marriage, said lawyer Gayle L. Eagan, who represents Clark, in her reply to Billittier's lawyers at Harris Beach.

The two sides agreed that Diamond Cutters of Western New York, located in Ellicott Square, would keep the engagement ring while the two sides try to settle or until the court makes a ruling.

"They can resolve it, or the judge can," said attorney Richard T. Sullivan, who represents Billittier. "They agreed to an order to let the jeweler hold it in the meantime."

In his affidavit, Billittier asserted that he did not mean to give the engagement ring to Clark as a gift.

"I certainly referred to the engagement ring as a ‘parting gift,' " Billittier said. "That was written during a very emotional period in our relationship, and I certainly had no knowledge of the law relating to gifts in contemplation of marriage. I never intended to give it to Miss Clark."

The two were engaged in April 2011. It would have been the second marriage for the 53-year-old Hamburg man, an owner of Chef's Restaurant in Buffalo.

When the two became engaged, Billittier gave the 36-year-old Clark a white gold, 2.97-carat diamond engagement ring, with a retail replacement value pegged at $49,000.

An appraisal found the cut of the diamond to be "very good."

The two lived together in Billittier's home on Old Lakeview Road.

But Billittier called off the engagement in July because Clark refused to sign a prenuptial agreement, he said in his affidavit.

"There is a difference in our ages, and I have significant business interests in Buffalo and Western New York," he said in the affidavit. "I was advised by my attorney and other business counselors that a prenuptial agreement was necessary and in both our interest.

"Miss Clark refused to sign an agreement, and I terminated the engagement," he said.

He said he asked her to return the ring but she refused.

"The engagement ring was a gift in contemplation of our marriage," he said in the affidavit. "Clearly, I gave her the engagement ring because we were going to be married."

Billittier asked the court to grant him a seizure order for the ring.

But what about that text message?

"It creates a question of fact," said Christopher S. Mattingly, a senior partner in the Lipsitz Green Scime Cambria law firm's matrimonial and family law department. "It gives the almost-wife an argument that it was intended to be a gift."

Mattingly, who is not involved in the Billittier case, serves as president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers' New York chapter.

"His text certainly creates a factual issue," Mattingly said.

The law is clear about the return of engagement rings, but the text message complicates Billittier's request for the ring back.

"It's not that cut and dried now," said Thomas R. Cassano, executive counsel to Hogan Willig's matrimonial and family law department.

"I like her position, once that text went out," said Cassano, who also is not involved in the case.

"Didn't think everything through about our age difference," Billittier also wrote in the text.

"Didn't understand about your ?business and prenup," he said, adding, "otherwise I wouldn't have got engaged."

"Can't talk any more about this," he texted, adding, "it does bother me."

"I am not cold hearted," he said in the text.

Billittier's text message could ultimately help Clark in court. But it initially puzzled her.

"Your doing this through a text message????" she replied.