Love and the Family Jewels

August 17, 2015 § 4 Comments

Love, as they say, conquers all, including good judgment in some cases.

Most of us have seen this scenario more than once: Boyfriend, hopelessly in love with girlfriend, proposes marriage; Girlfriend, eyelids batting furiously, says “yes”; Boyfriend slips a rather expensive engagement ring on Girlfriend’s finger; wedding ensues, converting Boyfriend and Girlfriend to Husband and Wife; marital bliss soon gives way to combat; Husband retains attorney; Wife does the same. You represent Husband. Here is the conversation in your office:

H:  Oh, and not only do I not want her to get anything, but I want that engagement ring back.

You:  Under our law an engagement ring is a gift; the judge will not give it back to you.

H:  Oh yes he will because it belonged to my mother. It’s been in the family for 175 years. It was given to my great (etc., etc.) grandmother by Napoleon just after his victory at Austerlitz.

So let’s pause right there while you catch your breath. So it’s an heirloom. And a valuable antique, to boot. What to do?

Well, first off, you were right to point out that if it meets the elements of a valid gift, the judge is not going to take the ring away from her. Those elements are: (1) that the donor was competent to make a gift; (2) that the donation was a voluntary act and the donor had donative intent; (3) that the gift must be complete and not conditional; (4) that delivery was made; and (5) that the gift was irrevocable. In re Estate of Ladner, 909 So.2d 1051, 1053 (Miss. 2004). Those are fact issues, and the burden of proof is clear and convincing.

In a recent case the COA addressed a similar situation (not involving Napoleon). Here’s how Judge Barnes’ opinion laid out the dispute in Lomax v. Lomax, decided August 11, 2015:

¶11. The main point of contention in the divorce and the determination of marital property concerned the chancery court’s award of the engagement ring to Tara. The chancellor concluded that Tara was entitled to keep the ring, which had previously belonged to Max’s mother, since Max had given the ring to Tara as an inter vivos gift prior to the marriage. Max argues that the parties had an oral agreement that if the marriage did not work out, the ring would be returned to his mother. At the hearing, Max testified that his mother’s ring was given to Tara under the condition that once Max could afford another stone for the ring setting they had purchased, she would return the ring.

¶12. Tara, however, emphatically denied that there was an actual agreement that the ring would be returned, but she acknowledged that after the couple separated, she told her mother-in-law she wanted to be “fair” and return the stone. But she explained at the hearing that when she made that comment to Max’s mother, she “didn’t realize that [Max] intentionally wanted to cost [her] $20,000” to obtain the divorce.

The chancellor awarded Tara the ring. Judge Barnes addressed Max’s claim that the chancellor was in error by letting Tara keep the family jewels:

¶13. In Neville v. Neville, 734 So. 2d 352, 357 (¶19) (Miss. Ct. App. 1999), this Court held that since an engagement ring was a gift that predated the marriage of the parties, it “was not a marital asset subject to equitable division.” “It was, therefore, beyond the chancellor’s authority to order [the wife] to return possession of that item to [the husband] and [the chancellor’s] refusal to do so cannot constitute reversible error on appeal.” Id. Accordingly, we find no error in the chancellor’s decision to award the engagement ring to Tara.

In the Neville case, incidentally, Mr. Neville claimed that the ring was a family heirloom.

A few observations:

  • The ring does not just disappear from the marital equation. It is considered Tara’s separate property, and its value will be considered, along with her share of the equitable distribution, in determining whether she has a “deficit” that would justify alimony.
  • The fact that it was a family heirloom does not enter into the picture. If the giving of the ring meets all the requirements of a gift under Mississippi law, it belongs to the donee.
  • Max might have wanted to memorialize his version of the transaction with a pre-nup that provided that Tara would return the ring in the event of a marital dissolution, particularly if it had monumental value like the Napoleon ring mentioned above.
  • I think the outcome would have been different had Tara admitted on the witness stand that the ring was not a gift, but was hers temporarily only until Max could replace the valuable stone in it. The judge believed Tara that the ring was an unconditional gift, and that did in Max’s position. The chancellor is the ultimate determiner of whom to believe.
  • Would the outcome before the COA have been different if it were not only a family heirloom, but also a priceless antique with a provenance linked to one of the great figures in world history? We’ll have to wait until our appellate courts are confronted with such a fact situation. Until then, I think it’s safe to conclude that if the ring is gifted, it’s the property of the one to whom the gift is given — divorce or none.

 

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