Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Engagement Ring

The engagement ring is a symbol that conveys love and commitment. Presented usually by the man to his fiancé, the ring is hope, the future, and when coupled with the wedding ring, everlasting unity. But what happens to the engagement ring when the marriage doesn’t last? This question normally arises when the marriage is of short duration. The return of the engagement ring usually becomes a sticking point for the man. The ring takes on more significance than its financial value in some divorce cases. Indeed, the arguing prior to a trial of who gets the ring in a divorce can cost more in time and attorney fees than the ring’s resale value. The engagement ring can become a very emotional issue to some divorcing couples.
In the case, Winer vs. Winer,[1] the court was faced with answering this question, as well as whether the condominium purchased prior to the marriage by the husband was part of the marital property and subject to equitable distribution. To the New Jersey court, the engagement ring was determined to be a conditional gift which was presented by the giver to the receiver who in consideration of receiving the ring promised to marry the giver. If the engagement was subsequently called off, the receiver must return the ring. But once the couple completes their wedding vows, the engagement ring belongs to the receiver and is not part of marital property and thus not subject to equitable distribution in a divorce. The court took an interesting view of the engagement ring in light of other assets in the case. The court did not view the ring as consideration for a continuing promise of marriage or part of a particular set, such as the engagement and wedding rings, nor did it view the ring as an object acquired in contemplation of marriage which according to this same case, would subject an item to equitable distribution.

In reviewing the facts of the case we learn that Mr. Winer proposed marriage and thereafter purchased a condominium with his own funds with the intention that it was going to become the marital residence. After the couple married they resided in the condo for a few years. Consequently, during the divorce Mrs. Winer sought half of the value of the marital residence. The court relying on an earlier case, Weiss vs. Weiss,[2] opined that a date prior to the marriage ceremony may be used for determining what property is subject to equitable distribution. The court quoted from the Weiss opinion:

“We believe that for the purpose of triggering a right of equitable distribution a marital partnership may be found to have commenced prior to the marriage ceremony, where the parties have adequately expressed that intention and have acquired assets in specific contemplation of their marriage. This conclusion recognizes that the shared enterprise of marriage may begin before the actual marriage ceremony through the purchase of a major marital asset such as a house and subsequent improvements to that asset.”

As a result, the court declared the condo to be part of the marital assets and Mrs. Winer was entitled to share in its value. It is interesting that the same court did not consider the purchase and presentation of the engagement ring to be an expressed intention of a shared enterprise and in contemplation of the marriage. Rather, the court viewed the giving of the engagement ring, its acceptance and the marriage ceremony to be a complete transaction in of its self.

Perhaps it’s time to revisit the notion that the engagement ring is not part of the marital assets. This would certainly be a relief to many divorcing husbands in at least knowing that the ring’s ownership and value is not predetermined.

[1] Winer v.Winer, 241N.J. Super 510 (App. Div. 1990)
[2] Weiss v. Weiss, 226 N.J. Super. 281, (App. Div. 1988), certif.. den., 114 N.J. 287 (1988)


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