Who gets the wedding ring?
This is a question that is often asked after a couple decides to end their marriage or engagement. Engagement and wedding rings hold deep sentimental value for many of us, as well as monetary value. Unfortunately, the answer to this question depends on where and when the relationship ends. Below is a breakdown of the most common rules to help you determine who gets the ring.
The Ring Before Marriage
In North Carolina, there is no statute or court opinion that indicates who receives the ring before marriage, however, there are three well-known rules that govern who gets the ring before marriage.
The Fault Rule
Some states have adopted a rule that specifies that fault determines who is entitled to the ring. In other words, the person who is at fault for the failed engagement is not entitled to the ring. For example: Alex gives Ashley an engagement ring. Alex has an affair during the engagement period. Alex is not entitled to the ring, and Ashley gets to keep the ring.
This rule is premised on the idea that the person who was at fault and broke the promise should not be rewarded for ending the engagement.
The Conditional Gift Rule
Other states, including North Carolina, have adopted a rule that does not consider fault. In these jurisdictions the ring is seen as a conditional gift from the gift-giver to the gift-receiver. The gift is conditioned on marriage. In other words, the gift is not complete until marriage. If the relationship comes to an end before the couple gets married, the gift-giver is entitled to the ring. This is true even if the engagement fails due to the gift-giver’s fault. For example, if Alex is the gift-giver and gives Ashley an engagement ring, but Alex and Ashley never marry because Alex was caught having an affair before he and Ashley could wed, Alex is entitled to the ring, regardless of fault.
This rule is based on the concept that the gift is conditioned on marriage and if marriage never occurs then the gift is never complete. Once marriage is complete, the gift is complete and the ring belongs to the gift-receiver, or Ashley in this case.
The Pre-Marriage Gift Rule
Finally, other states treat the engagement ring as an absolute pre-marriage gift. In these states, the engagement ring is treated as a gift and becomes property of the party that receives the gift as soon as the ring is given. If the engagement fails, that party keeps the ring. These states treat the ring as separate property of the party who received the ring upon engagement.
The Ring After Marriage
The answer to the question is a little simpler when the couple separates after marriage.
In states that adopt the conditional gift rule, after the marriage is official the gift is complete and it belongs to the person who received the ring. During equitable distribution the court will grant the ring to the person who received it.
What if the engagement ring was a family heirloom?
The gift is complete whether it is a family heirloom or not. Therefore, a prenuptial agreement is recommended for couples who are dealing with family heirlooms.
What about wedding rings?
Wedding rings are sometimes treated differently than engagement rings for several reasons, including the fact that often both parties contribute to the purchase of the rings. Each state has its own rules regarding wedding rings.
Courts treat wedding rings as marital property (property that belongs to both spouses) in most cases where both spouses made financial contributions to purchase the wedding rings. In that case, the rings become subject to division between the spouses.
Less frequently, wedding rings are treated as separate property (property that belongs to only one spouse).