The contemplation of marriage, instituted by the engagement of the parties, traditionally brings with it an engagement ring given from one to another. Some have sentimental value: engagement rings are handed down and are often heirlooms. An engagement ring may have been something that belonged to a grandmother, a mother or another family member. Some would say that sentimental value has no price tag. Others have monetary value: engagement rings are often quite expensive. Either way, the engagement ring is an asset, high value or not, that is often litigated during a divorce and is a topic that you should discuss with an attorney during the pendency of the divorce.
The law seems to depend on when the parties separate. Did you terminate the engagement prior to the marriage taking place? Or did the marriage actually happen and now you are terminating the marriage by way of divorce? Here’s how the Courts view these issues:
- Engagement terminated pre-marriage:
Where there is an engagement, a ring is often given in contemplation of marriage. That is, it is a “conditional gift.” Generally speaking, if the marriage takes place, and the condition has been met, the ring, which was given in contemplation of marriage, should stay with the donee (the person that received the ring). If the marriage does not take place, the ring should be returned to the donor (the person that gave the ring). Individual circumstances may change this general rule, so it is important to take a look at the details surrounding the actual giving of the ring and the cause of the breakup.
If a ring was given on a holiday, the question becomes whether the ring is given “in contemplation of marriage” or as a holiday gift – or both! If, for example, a man proposes to his girlfriend on Christmas, she may now argue that the ring was a Christmas present or, in the alternative, both a Christmas present and an engagement ring (thus, not only a “gift in contemplation of marriage.”). In that case, the ring may be awarded to the donee. To avoid any such questioning, it is best to give the ring on a day that is not a holiday and only a special day because of the engagement itself.
If both parties make a decision to terminate the engagement, the ring should be returned to the donor. If one party makes the decision to terminate the engagement, and there is no wrongdoing on that party’s behalf, then the ring should be returned to the donor. However, circumstances surrounding the breakup may be argued in order to show that the ring should remain with the donee rather than returned to the donor. Wrongdoing, adultery, abuse, criminal activity or other circumstances on the part of the donor may lead the court to award the ring to the donee. Absent that, the ring should be returned to the donor.
For MA cases that speak to this issue, follow these links:
De Cicco v. Barker , 339 Mass. 457 (1959)/If the contract to marry is terminated without fault on the part of the donor he may recover the ring.” http://masscases.com/cases/sjc/339/339mass457.html
Bowser v. Daly, 2006 Mass. Super. LEXIS 532, 2006 WL 3293414 (Middlesex Superior Court)/ Court finds that donee’s wrongdoing was the precipitating cause of the parties’ break-up, returning the ring to the donor spouse. http://www.mass.gov/courts/docs/lawlib/docs/bowser.pdf
- Marriage terminated by divorce:
After the marriage has occurred, the condition has been met and the “gift in contemplation of marriage” becomes the individual property of the donee. Fault or wrongdoing of the parties generally will not alter the award to the donee though in some circumstances, the Court may award the ring to the donor upon divorce.
One thing to note in divorce that whomever receives the ring receives a valuable asset and a similarly valuable asset should be awarded to the other spouse. This may mean that the donor spouse receives another valuable asset, more equity in the marital home or additional monies from the parties’ savings.
The Court has discretion to award the ring to donor spouse if that award is found to be fair and equitable. If the ring, for example, is a family heirloom or has some sort of sentimental value, the Court may award it to the donor spouse. If there is a need to award the ring in order to have a fair and equitable property division, the Court may award the ring to the donor spouse. Circumstances would need to be rather convincing to award the ring to the donor spouse upon divorce.
As with every legal issue, the answer lies within the facts and circumstances specific to your case. It is always in your best interest to discuss your case with an attorney. You can contact me here to discuss your issue.