These are the rules — and realities — of what happens to the engagement and wedding rings post-divorce
“The Rules” is a new Moneyish series where we define the rules around sticky money topics like giving an allowance, who pays on a date, combining finances with your partner, and more.
Divorce doesn’t have a nice ring to it.
When 44-year-old Dara R. Vance, a painter and graduate student studying history, got married four years ago, she gave her fiance a simple gold wedding ring seeped in tradition. “His ring is my dad’s ring bought when my parents married 48 years ago,” Vance explains. In May 2017, the couple began divorce proceedings, and while there were “no financial arguments over anything,” Vance says the one thing she does want is to keep the wedding ring. “I am going to ask him for the ring back,” she says, noting that she wants to “keep the ring in the family” and might want to give it to her brother’s son should he get married in the future. “It is … minimal monetary value, maybe a few hundred dollars. The value is in the sentimentality.”
South-Florida based divorce attorney Eric Klein says that most of the disagreements he’s seen about engagement or wedding rings in a divorce are because someone is emotionally attached to the rings — typically because they were a family heirloom. For some people, this fact sends them into a rage. “Rings have a way of mysteriously disappearing,” says Peter M. Walzer, the president-elect of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, who has seen couples battle over rings — particularly those that are very valuable or family heirlooms. But when the rings are store-bought, Klein says most couples don’t even try to fight over them, and the rings typically stay with the person who was gifted them.
That’s how it was for recently divorced 41-year-old PR professional Alison Maloni; she kept her engagement and wedding ring and her ex kept his wedding ring, all of which they had bought at a jewelry store in West Springfield, Mass.“We considered them gifts to each other and that we should be able to keep them,” she tells Moneyish. “It was not a difficult conversation,” she tells Moneyish. And when Klein himself got divorced days ago, a similar thing happened. The 58-year-old, who married his now ex-wife in 2011, bought her engagement ring — a three-carat, princess-cut rock — at a local jewelry store. They bauble didn’t even come up in their divorce discussions. “I have no idea what she did with it, I have no legal right to ask her, and I don’t really care what she did with it,” Klein tells Moneyish. “It’s hers.”
Of course, fights or no fights, the law may play into who gets the rings in the roughly 825,000 divorces and annulments that happen each year. Each state has different laws (as this infographic from WP Diamonds shows), but Walzer, a founding partner of the Southern Calif-based Walzer Melcher, says that the general rule is that if you give the person the ring before the marriage, they keep the ring when you divorce. That’s because, “the engagement ring is generally treated as a premarital gift and it’s not divided or returned,” explains family law attorney Jessica Markham, who practices in Maryland and Washington D.C. Same with the wedding ring: “Since wedding rings are usually bought prior to the marriage they’re treated as a gift and the one who receives it, keeps it,” she adds.
This is true even if the ring was a family heirloom: So if, say, a man gives a women his mother’s engagement ring and then they divorce, the women will still likely gets to keep the ring, explains Walzer. Of course, this can be negotiated in the divorce settlement should someone want it back, he adds. Other rules: If you have a prenup that specifies what happens to the rings, that must be followed. And if you get an engagement ring and then don’t actually get married, the ring legally may have to be returned, notes Malcolm S. Taub, co-chair of Davidoff Hutcher & Citron’s Divorce & Family Law practice group.
One reason rings aren’t that often a battleground in a divorce: Neither party wants a reminder of the failure of their marriage. Though Stamford, Conn.-based Susan kept her one-carat Tiffany sparkler when she got divorced, as it was legally hers, she says she never wanted it and never wore it, keeping it hidden away in her bathroom. That’s why about a year after the divorce — when her ex shouted at her that she probably “wasted no time hawking the ring” — she simply handed it over to him. “I said, ‘I don’t ever want to see this ring again — and don’t give it to either of our girls because it has a divorce attached to it,’” she says. “To me it was a reminder of a broken promise that rocked my soul … it was tainted.”
Sometimes, of course, there’s no contest about who should keep the rock. When 48-year-old author Lisa Orban got engaged in 1995, she bought her own engagement ring, a half-carat, heart-shaped diamond. The reason? “I made considerably more than he did … wanted a ring I actually liked, and it was more than he could afford,” Orban, the author of “I’ll Feel Better when It Quits Hurting” tells Moneyish. “Needless to say, when we divorced, I kept the ring.” And not only that, the divorcee is not afraid to rock that rock: “I still wear it on occasion on my right hand when I feel the mood to dress up,” she says. “Because you know, it’s mine.”
© 2018 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved