Winter Shopping, Wedding Proposals and Engagement Rings In Divorce
Written by: Stefano Ceroni
‘Tis the season…
With the holiday season fully underway, retailers are once again pulling out all the stops to get people into their stores. Furniture stores, clothing stores, electronic stores and even car dealerships, have a long history of rolling out the red carpet deals in order to increase their end-of- year sales before the lull of winter regret fully sets in on the overworked and underpaid middle class.
And, who can blame them? The holidays have been marketed as a time for free spending and gift giving for so long, it almost seems un-American to not partake in the annual spend-what-you-don’t-have sweepstakes.
The One Big (Little) Gift That Can Wipe Out Your Account
Now, although a little friendly gift giving will rarely wipe-out a responsible person’s bank account, there is, in one case, an acceptable exception to this general rule of frugality. Actually, the more that I think about it, it’s not just an exception, but the rule. In fact, it is so much of a rule that not breaking the bank on this particular gift can actually result in anger, resentment, frustration and even rejection.
What, you’re crazy….right?
Don’t worry; I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking no gift is too small and most people care more about the thoughtfulness behind the gift than the actual gift itself. And, you’re all right…for the most part. Remember…this is an exception!
Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, expensive gift. Adding to the stress of the situation is the fact that the responsibility of purchasing this break-your-budget gift is usually bestowed upon one of our society’s most impoverished demographics: Twenty-something single men.
Have you figured it out yet?
Need a hint? OK, think jewelry.
Of course…the engagement ring!!!
Engagement Rings Are More than a Symbol of a Promise
Over the centuries, the engagement ring has seemingly transformed from a simple and unadorned symbol of a man’s promise to a measuring stick by which a woman’s wealth, class and status may effectively be determined.
Now, let me first say that women are not the only guilty parties responsible for this revolution in social values. Men, including myself, have used the purchase of an engagement ring as a means by which to pronounce our own pride and good taste, despite any pressure from our significant others. In addition, it is also a fact that many women truly do not care about the size and clarity of their diamond(s), but only about the person who asked them for their hand in marriage. And, in fairness, there are also many men who believe that spending a small fortune on a rock that is found in the ground to be both irresponsible and unnecessary. But, as we all know, the majority of us fall somewhere in the middle of either caring too much or not caring at all.
Most men will not shutter in fear if they cannot afford two carats, but will take the time to learn about the 4-c’s so that their future fiancé is proud of their purchase. And, most women will not turn down a proposal just because their boyfriend opted out of the platinum band upgrade, but would be extremely disappointed if they found out their center stone was nothing more than a cubic zirconium.
Engagement Rings Could Be Assets…Or Not
That being said, most men (myself included) take a substantial hit to our bank accounts when we decide to purchase an engagement ring. And, most men (myself also included) make this purchase somewhere in our mid-twenties, when we are just out of school, full of debt and at the bottom of the corporate totem pole. Meaning, most of us are spending way more money than we ever should because we are counting on this being a very long term and worthwhile investment. (Excuse the cold business analogy, but it will help me make my eventual point.) In essence, we are willing to make the poor financial decision to purchase the ring because in all our love, affection and ill-advised euphoria, we refuse to ever contemplate that the ring may someday leave our possession. (Obviously, I don’t mean physical possession; but rather, our familial possession.)
Think of it like this…if you consider the ring to be a future family heirloom, something that will trickle down with your family throughout each generation, preserving your legacy and its value, then it is not unreasonable to invest in the ring as if it were an asset that is immune from depreciation. When you do this, you forget about the credit card debt, interest payments and lack of retirement planning that comes with your decision. And, for half of us (the lucky half), there will be no regrets; you’ll look back and say, “Buying that ring which I could not afford was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.”
Unfortunately, as an Arizona divorce attorney, it’s my job to counsel the other half, the unlucky ones, the ones who walk into my office scared, broken and alone.
Engagement Rings in Divorce = Poor Investments
These are the ones who made a bad investment.
Why do I say that?
Well, for one thing, nobody would ever consider that buying an asset, especially one that you cannot really afford, that also serves no real utility purpose (like a car or home), to be a good investment; especially when there is a 50% chance that you will eventually wind-up despising the person your purchased it for. More importantly, however, when it comes to engagement rings in divorce, the investment becomes even worse because the law regarding the divisions of the rings is, for the most part, not on the side of the purchaser.
Well, when you break it down, an engagement ring is basically a gift, and, as a result, it becomes the sole and separate property of the receiving spouse when it comes time to identify marital assets in a divorce. (See A.R.S. § 25-211). (To be technical, an engagement ring is really a conditional gift that is conditioned on marriage. Meaning, if two parties split before they ever get married, the ring would remain the property of the purchasing party because the condition of marriage was never satisfied. However, once the parties marry, the condition becomes satisfied and the gift becomes vested with the recipient.)
That being said, because the law is quite clear, there are not a lot of times when the engagement rings in divorce are huge issues. Generally, the wife keeps the ring and, as a result, she is entitled to do with it as she pleases; sell…keep…pawn…whatever. In fact, because it is wife’s sole and separate property, she doesn’t even have to reimburse her husband for any of its value, as someone normally would when they are awarded possession of a community property asset.
See how bad the investment can be?
Anyway, I wrote this post because in some cases, generally those cases where the parties had a short duration marriage or where the husband gave the wife a family heirloom ring, I get asked the question about whether there is any way that the husband may get the ring back. In these cases, the importance of the ring is quite significant. It either holds an important sentimental value or could fill the considerable hole that is still remaining in the purchasing party’s bank account.
Unfortunately, as regrettable as these situations are, there is really not much that I can do about it. Why? Well, because the particular circumstances that I mentioned do not change the legal presumption that the ring is the sole and separate property of the recipient, there is no strong legal argument that can be raised in favor of the ring being returned. And, although that may not seem unfair to everyone, I think we can all appreciate the frustration of a party who may have dropped his entire savings on a ring that he will never get to recoup the benefits of. Or…to add insult to injury, think about the fact that he may still have payments left on the ring even after the divorce is finalized. (Talk about an unwanted payment…that one has to hurt!)
Now, sure, depending on the facts of the case, the ring buying party may morally deserve the punishment. Maybe they were the philandering spouse, or worse yet, a verbally abusive person. In Arizona, however, each party’s moral conscience and marital misconduct is largely irrelevant, especially when it comes to property distribution. (See A.R.S. § 25-318)
Here’s The Point About Engagement Rings in Divorce
So, what’s my point?
Well, with the holiday gift-giving season upon us, my little request is this…
For those who are in the middle of a contentious divorce, try to remember back to when you first got engaged. Think of the happiness and love that you shared for each other. Think of the optimism that you had about your future. Think about how you made each other laugh and smile like nobody else. Think about your children. Think about your children when they are with your ex. Think about how your children would cower when they heard the two of you yell and fight. Think about how their one wish at Christmas would be for you all to be together again.
Then, maybe, think about whether you were lucky enough to be the recipient of a beautiful ring from a person who spent all they had; or, whether you have possession of a family heirloom that means more to your ex than you.
Then, perhaps, in the spirit of giving, consider whether returning the gesture by giving the ring back could help resolve your case and put an end to all the fighting.
Hey, you never know, it might make you both move on and move forward just a little bit easier.
…just a thought…