During a divorce we are often asked, “who gets to keep the rings?” Couples understand that their property is going to get divided one way or another, in settlement or a trial. One of the largest bits of property often is the wedding and engagement rings. Occasionally, one party or the other may want the rings sold simply to keep it from the other. For less wealthy families, however, the rings may be the largest asset they have.
So who do the rings really belong to? Pretty much if the ring was given to you before the marriage or at the ceremony, its the original, it’s yours. Otherwise, you will need to work through the rules of property.
The Rule on Gifts
The Rule on Gifts states: a gifter must transfer personal property, voluntarily, and without consideration. The gifter transfer’s personal property simply by delivering it to the recipient. A gift is ‘voluntary’ given if it is fairly certain there is no force, coercion, or taking by the recipient of the actual gift. The trickier part is whether or not ‘consideration’ (for example in exchange for a promise) is implied when the rings are given.
California does not view engagement rings as gifts but rather that they are given for the other person’s promise of marriage (CA Civil Code section 1590). If the couple actually marries, the recipient (normally the bride), has completed her promise and the engagement ring is hers. When the parties divorce, the engagement ring, having become the property of the bride before marriage, it remains her separate property and would not be divided as part of the divorce.
Wedding Rings and Anniversiary
Unfortunately wedding bands and rings bought after the wedding day (anniversiary rings, upgraded rings, etc.), are not as clear cut as engagement rings. The rules of marital property and conversion of property (called “transmutation”) have to be taken into account.
Wedding bands purchased before the wedding day and given at the ceremony are the property of the buyer until the wedding. The spouses aren’t married and their money is separate. At the wedding each buying spouse gives (transfers) a wedding band to the other spouse voluntarily. But is there consideration – are wedding rings given for a promise to stay married?
Normally, the original wedding bands are treated as an exchange of gifts. The wedding is a separate exchange of promises. This makes sense if we think of couples that can’t afford a wedding ring or the cost of different couples’ rings. If a couple doesn’t have a wedding ring are they not married after the ceremony? That wouldn’t be fair. If one couple can afford a very expensive ring is their promise to stay married stronger than a couple who can only afford an inexpensive ban? Also ridiculous.
The treatment of the original wedding bands as gifts isn’t stated that way in the statutes nor is there a settled law on the issue. However, if the rings were treated as an exchange for being married, that would be a contract that would appear to trade personal servitude or sex for a gift of an asset and would be patently illegal.
Later Purchased Rings
So what about rings that are bought after the wedding day? This happens often, at anniversiaries, when renewing their vows, or even when the couples are doing better financially and want to upgrade the original rings.
The purchase of rings or other jewelry purchased after the marriage would most likely be from earnings acquired after the marriage – community property money. The rings could be considered community property as well.
But can the rings be considered a gift from one spouse to the other? California Family law holds that transmutation – the conversion of community property to separate property – requires a writing signed by the gifting spouse. However, the law excludes “jewelry …that is used solely or principally by the spouse to whom the gift is made and that is not substantial in value taking into account the circumstances of the marriage”.
Therefore, when it comes to rings purchased after the marriage, whether the rings are gifts will be a judgment issue based on if the rings are of “substantial value”, taking into account the rest of the marital circumstances (value and income). The smaller percentage of the total value both at purchase and divorce will be the most likely measuring points.
Seek Help from an Experienced Attorney
Dividing marital property can be a tricky affair. The loss of family heirloom rings and finding a “fair” middle ground can be difficult when your emotions are running high and you are trying to negotiate at the same time. A skilled attorney can help you get through this most difficult time and work through the issues with you.