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There are many questions that arise during the divorce process. Who gets the house? Who will have primary custody of the children?  Who will pay support, and alimony, and how much? And among these questions, one of the most commonly asked, but one which people frequently don’t know the answer to…. who keeps the ring?

This is an understandable question, particularly considering the fact that engagement and wedding rings carry not only significant sentimental value, but significant monetary value as well. Certainly, at the end of a marital relationship, one spouse may decide to let the other keep the ring, or they may address it in a dissolution agreement that they create together. If not, however, the law on this matter largely depends on when the relationship itself ends.  

Prior to Marriage ….

In North Carolina, there is not a particular statute or court opinion indicating who should receive the ring if the couple decides to break up prior to getting married. There are, however, a few fairly well-known rules that provide guidance in various states as to who should keep the ring prior to the  couple’s marriage. 

  • The Fault Rule – Many states have essentially adopted the viewpoint that fault ultimately determines entitlement to the ring. For example, if a couple become engaged and one spouse cheats on the other leading to the end of the relationship, the spouse that did not cheat would be entitled to the ring. Essentially, the idea behind this rule is to reward the spouse who was not at fault, and to punish the individual who was.
  • The Pre-Marriage Gift Rule – States that have adopted this rule view the engagement ring as a marriage gift, free and clear. This means that once the ring is given, it is a gift, without any conditions, and becomes the property of the person to whom it is given as soon as it is accepted. If the relationship ends, regardless of the fault of either party, the person to whom the ring was given is allowed to keep it.
  • The Conditional Gift Rule – Other states have the opinion that fault should not be considered, and in these states, the ring is seen as a conditional gift from the giver to the receiver, with the condition being the marriage. If the relationship comes to an end prior to the time the couple gets married, then the giver is entitled to the ring.  If the couple does marry, however, then the ring belongs to the spouse who received it as a gift.
  • After Marriage – If the couple goes through with the marriage and later decides to divorce, the answer to the question of who should keep the ring is a bit clearer. In states that adopt the conditional gift rule, the gift is considered “complete”, and as such, belongs to the person who received it. Typically, during the property distribution phase of the divorce, a court would award the ring to the person that it belonged to as part of equitable distribution. If the ring has significantly appreciated in value after the parties were married, the court may take the increased value of the ring into account when determining how to divide the property overall in the most equitable manner possible.

Other Commonly Asked Ring Questions

  • What if the Ring was a Family Heirloom? – Not infrequently, an engagement or wedding ring might be a priceless family heirloom with significant sentimental value – one that has been in the family for generations. In this situation, the question can become particularly pressing – who keeps the ring, the giver, whose family has “owned” the ring for years, or the future spouse to whom it was given as a gift? This is a legitimate question. In an ideal scenario, the couple may have entered into a prenuptial agreement prior to the marriage, which would provide for the return of the ring to the spouse’s family in the event of a broken engagement or a divorce.  However, not all spouses do so, and absent such an agreement or an agreement of the parties after the break-up, the matter would go before a court. In those instances, courts in some states may look to legal rules regarding inheritances for guidance, but likely, the conditional gift rule will still apply, and after the marriage is complete, the ring will be considered to belong to the spouse to whom it was given.
  • What About Our Wedding Rings? – Often, wedding rings are treated somewhat differently than engagement rings, in light of the fact that both parties often contribute to the purchase of the rings. In most cases, court treat wedding rings as marital property that belongs to both spouses, particularly in cases where both spouses made contributions to purchase them. In that case, the rings become subject to division between the spouses much as is the case with other forms of marital property.

Call the Law Office of Dustin McCrary

Clearly, the question of “Who gets the ring?” is one that is dependent upon time and a number of factors. As a result, it can always be a wise decision to address this matter in an agreement prior to the marriage if you feel that it may be necessary, or to work out an agreement with your spouse regarding what will happen in the event of a breakup. As always, at The Law Office of Dustin McCrary, we would welcome the opportunity to work with you on a variety of divorce issues like this, and many others. Call us today.

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