Wedding rings are symbols of a couple’s promise to marry, so they may carry deep meaning for both spouses. But, when a marriage breaks down, spouses often wonder who's entitled to the rings after divorce. If the pair has only been married a short time, the engagement and wedding rings may be one of their most valuable assets.
There have been several cases where courts have viewed wedding rings as gifts, meaning the person who gave the ring as a gift is not entitled to it any longer. The law in the state where the divorce proceeding takes place will govern whether a ring is treated as a gift.
Inter vivos is a Latin term meaning “between the living,” which refers to the transfer of property by agreement between people while they are alive, as opposed to a gift received through a person’s will after death. The contract is completed by delivery of the gift from the donor (giver) to the donee (receiver) and cannot be recovered by the person who donated the gift.
Gift causa mortis is Latin for “gift on the occasion of death” and is used in reference to a gift made in contemplation of death (e.g., a gift given to another person while the donor is on his or her deathbed). But, this is not merely a gift given through a will; the gift donor must expect to die imminently from a particular illness or event.
Let’s say, for example that a woman is engaged to a man whose mother is dying of an incurable medical condition. At the hospital, the man’s mother gifts the “bride to be” her engagement and wedding ring set, which is a family heirloom she wishes to keep in the family. When the couple’s marriage falls apart, the man wants the rings back so that they remain in his family. Unfortunately, he’s out of luck because the law says that once a gift is given and the individual actually dies, the contract is completed. However, if the mother recovers from her condition and wants the rings back, she’s entitled to recover them.
In many states, courts view the engagement and wedding rings as “conditional gifts.” This means a gift is given to a person, but only as long as that person meets a specific condition that’s agreed upon by both parties. An example would be when a man gives a woman an engagement ring on the promise that she marries him. The engagement falls apart, therefore, the condition of marriage did not occur, and the ring may be returned to him.
However, there are exceptions to this general rule, which will vary from state to state. In California, for example, if the person that gave the engagement ring is responsible for the breakup, the other person doesn’t have to give it back.
Or, let’s say a couple gets married, but they are unable to afford lavish rings for the wedding. During their marriage, the husband eventually buys his wife an expensive wedding ring. The couple gets divorced, and the man asks for the ring back, because he claims he gave it to his wife on the condition that she remains married to him. Whether he gets it back will depend on the laws of the state in which the divorce proceeding takes place.
Each state has its own rules to decide whether wedding rings are viewed as marital property (property that belongs to both spouses and is subject to division between them) or separate property (property that belongs separately, to only one spouse). If the couple’s shared finances contributed to the purchase of the rings, they may be considered marital property and therefore, eligible for distribution between the spouses during divorce.
The laws governing distribution of property are complex, so you should consult with an experienced family law attorney if you have questions.