They’re beautiful and symbolic and may have cost a lot of money. You gave and received them as forever gifts representing promise, commitment, and eternal love. You never intended to get divorced.
But now that your marriage is ending, these tiny objects may be causing you big heartaches… and some logistical headaches, too.
What happens to the wedding and engagement rings when you get divorced? What if someone calls off the wedding? Who do they legally belong to? Do you even want them anymore?
Here’s a guide to what California Family Law says about your wedding set when you call it quits on the relationship—and some ideas for what to do with the rings once the dust settles.
First, it’s essential to know that California is a community property state, which means that, by and large, everything that you acquired as a married couple is considered jointly owned and will be split 50/50 in a divorce. Assets owned before the wedding and brought to the marriage by one party—including gifts they have received—remain separate property and, therefore, typically belong to the original owner after a divorce. Still, other items are considered commingled property, meaning that marital funds got mixed in with previously separate property (for example, a home owned by one partner before the marriage but renovated with shared money while married).
By these standards, wedding rings can be a little tricky—they seem to fall on the line between separate and shared property, exchanged, as they are, during the wedding and, therefore, at the very moment of marriage.
California law does not explicitly govern ownership of the wedding rings in a divorce. However, specific legal principles about gifts and separate vs. community property generally apply.
Wedding rings purchased but never actually given because the wedding never happened are the buyer’s property.
But once the marriage happens, the wedding rings are typically viewed as a gift belonging to the recipient; therefore, they generally remain the separate property of the recipient in the event of a divorce.
An engagement ring is subtly different. Although it is a gift given before the marriage, that fiery (and expensive) diamond is considered to imply a “conditional promise,” meaning it’s a gift that assumes the couple will marry.
California Civil Code section 1590, which dates back to 1939, states:
Where either party to a contemplated marriage in this State makes a gift of money or property to the other on the basis or assumption that the marriage will take place, in the event that the donee refuses to enter into the marriage as contemplated or that it is given up by mutual consent, the donor may recover such gift or such part of its value as may, under all of the circumstances of the case, be found by a court or jury to be just.
So, if the recipient (“donee”) calls off the wedding, or both partners agree not to go through with it, the giver (“donor”) gets the ring back.
But what if the giver calls off the wedding? In that case, a 1950 ruling (Simonian v. Donoian) typically applies—the court found that (as the above law seems to imply) if the giver backs out, the gift stays with the recipient.
If the couple does get married, the promise of the engagement ring has technically been fulfilled, and the gift officially belongs to the recipient. It remains their property even if the marriage doesn’t last.
However, there are possible exceptions to all of this. For example:
Some couples have stipulations regarding the wedding ring included in their pre- or post-nuptial agreement, which are legally binding.
If the wedding or engagement ring was a family heirloom, a judge may rule that it belongs to the partner whose family it came from.
If the couple used marital funds to upgrade the wedding set at some point—maybe adding a bigger diamond and significantly increasing the ring’s value—the property is now commingled and may be treated as community property in a divorce.
Or suppose you received a diamond ring on Christmas, your birthday, or Valentine’s Day—was it an engagement ring that carried a conditional promise or just a regular gift? The court may have to decide in a dispute.
In the emotional and logistical maelstrom of a divorce and the grand scheme of property division, your wedding and engagement rings may be an afterthought. It’s easy to see why they can cause confusion and disputes.
After sorting through property division issues regarding the wedding rings, several options exist for what to do with the item itself. Some people continue to wear their rings for a variety of personal reasons. Others opt to sell the ring or even donate it to a favorite charity. A valuable jewel might be stored in a vault and passed down as an inheritance to children. Some people repurpose a ring or gemstone by creating a new piece of jewelry, giving it a fresh start. Still, others do something symbolic or ceremonious to get rid of a painful object—such as tossing it into the ocean. Take the time you need to make the best decision for yourself.
The veteran family attorneys at SFLG are experienced in handling divorce and asset division cases. We can help you navigate the complex details of your dissolution so you can focus on getting on with your life.
By Debra Schoenberg