Dec 30, 2022

Who Keeps the Engagement and Wedding Rings?

Dec 30, 2022 - Family Law by |

Throughout history, circles have represented wholeness, totality, perfection, eternity, and timelessness. Engagement and wedding rings are symbolic: their circular shapes are emblematic of enduring love and devotion. 

In addition to being symbolic, engagement and wedding rings are often expensive. Gemstones, 14-karat gold, and fine workmanship don’t come cheap. In 2020, the average price paid in Maryland for an engagement ring was $5,972.  So what happens when you say goodbye to the former love of your life? Who keeps the rings in a divorce?

If you and your spouse can agree on who gets to keep the engagement and/or wedding ring, the court will honor such an agreement so long as it is made by the parties without duress, fraud or misrepresentation. But if you cannot agree, the states have laws and case law precedents that will govern the ownership of the rings.

Engagement Rings And Their Status as Gifts

Engagement rings are viewed by most states as a gift from one party to the other. Most states recognize three types of gifts: conditional, unconditional, and causa mortis.

Conditional gifts – The laws of most states view an engagement ring as a conditional gift. That is, the ring is given in contemplation of a forthcoming marriage. Thus, if an engagement is broken, the condition has not been fulfilled and the giver can typically get it back. However, if the parties marry, the condition has been fulfilled, and in most cases, the engagement ring cannot be reclaimed by the donor. In Maryland, as in the majority of states, an engagement ring is considered to be a conditional gift.

In states that view engagement rings as conditional gifts, does it matter who broke the engagement? In most states, the answer is no. But there are some exceptions to this. In Texas, for example, the person who broke the engagement must forfeit the ring. And in Illinois, a person who breaks an engagement without justification cannot keep the ring. 

Unconditional gifts – A minority of states view an engagement ring as an unconditional gift. This means that it is freely given without conditions. Thus, in the event of a broken engagement, the party receiving the engagement ring may keep it.

Causa Mortis – Causa mortis means a deathbed gift made in anticipation that the donor will die soon. It would be a rare occurrence that an engagement or wedding ring was given in causa mortis, and courts are reluctant to recognize this type of gift. 

Who Keeps the Rings after Divorce?

Upon divorce, the issue of which party gets to keep the engagement and wedding rings depends on:

  • The state’s division of property rule in divorce actions;
  • When the rings were exchanged, i.e., before or during marriage, and
  • How the state governs spousal gifts. 

In a divorce, the property of the couple is separated into marital property – sometimes called community property – that was acquired during the marriage, and separate property, which is property that was brought into the marriage or acquired individually during the marriage. In most states, individuals are allowed to keep their separate property, which would include engagement rings, regardless of whether they were deemed to be conditional or unconditional gifts. 

The question of whether wedding rings are separate or marital property is often more complicated. Most couples exchange rings during their wedding vows, which means, in many cases, that the rings are marital property acquired during the marriage. But there are a number of exceptions to this. For example, Texas treats interspousal gifts as separate property. In states where a couple is divorcing and the rings are deemed to be marital property, their value would be added to an asset schedule as part of the couple’s total assets and divided. 

Failure of a Party to Return the Ring

What if the law is clear about returning a ring, and a party refuses to honor his or her legal obligations? The first step, if at all possible, should be divorce mediation.  If that’s not possible, In Maryland, a party can file legal actions known as “Replevin” and “Detinue” for the return of the property. In Replevin, the filing party is seeking the return of the personal property. In Detinue, the filing party is seeking the return of the personal property or the property’s value, plus possible damage. 

A major difference between the two legal actions is that in a  Replevin action, a party can petition the court for the immediate return of the property before trial. This is done through a pre-trial Show Cause Hearing. The Show Cause Hearing only determines who gets to possess the property while the action for permanent legal possession is being decided., so this is only a temporary remedy.

In Maryland, Replevin actions are filed only in the District Court. 

Depending on the value of the property and damages claimed, Detinue actions can be filed in the District Court or the Circuit Court.

  • If the amount in question is less than $5,000, the case must be brought in District Court.
  • If the amount in question is between $5,000 and $30,000, the case can be brought in either District Court or Circuit Court. 

A written complaint must be filed with the appropriate court, including a description of the property and its value. 

Schedule a Free Initial Consultation with Bethesda Divorce Attorney Brandon Bernstein

If you have questions about the disposition of engagement and wedding rings, either because of their sentimental or actual value, your next step is to schedule an appointment with Brandon Bernstein today. Please call 240-395-1418 or GET IN TOUCH ONLINE to schedule an appointment today.