We Alabama divorce lawyers had an e-mail conversation today about whether the wife must return the engagement ring if she and the husband divorce after a marriage of just a few months. The law in Alabama doesn’t appear to be settled on this question, although other states give us some useful guidance.
The closest case in Alabama on whether the bride must return the engagement ring and the wedding ring after a short-term marriage is Phillips v. Phillips, 705 So. 2d 512 (Ala. Civ. App. 1997). In that case, the trial court allowed the bride to keep the ring but ordered her to pay the groom $4,700, which happened to be the value of the ring.
The Court of Appeals affirmed without opinion, so we don’t really know the reasoning that led to the decision. In his dissent, however, Judge Crawley summarized the principle as he understood it (note omitted):
Although Alabama has yet to address whether a wedding ring is considered to be the spouse’s separate property or is considered to be marital property, other states have considered the issue. See Smith v. Smith, 797 S.W.2d 879 (Mo. App. 1990); Winer v. Winer, 241 N.J. Super. 510, 575 A.2d 518 (App.Div. 1990); Lipton v. Lipton, 134 Misc. 2d 1076, 514 N.Y.S.2d 158 (Sup. Ct. 1986); Semasek v. Semasek, 509 Pa. 282, 502 A.2d 109 (1985); Guggenmos v. Guggenmos, 218 Neb. 746, 359 N.W.2d 87 (1984). The majority of other courts have held that an engagement ring, although a conditional gift when first presented to the wife in contemplation of marriage, is an absolute gift when given to the wife and is separate property not subject to division in a divorce. Lipton, 134 Misc. 2d at 1077, 514 N.Y.S.2d at 159-160; Winer, 241 N.J. Super. at 528, 575 A.2d at 528; Smith, 797 S.W.2d at 881. In Lipton, to determine that the ring was indeed a gift to the wife, the court considered whether the elements of an inter vivos gift were satisfied. Lipton, 514 N.Y.S.2d at 159.