Engagement rings: to have and to hold… but for how long?


Diamonds are not always forever; from a bespoke design to a family heirloom, engagement rings can hold enormous value, both sentimentally and financially. We often deal with engagement rings worth in excess of £300,000; they are an incredibly prized possession. Originally borne out of a proposal of love, this precious piece of jewellery is all too often the source of great contention for couples whose relationship later breaks down.

Increasingly, we see divorces where those who have gifted a ring feel entitled to demand it back or wish to force a sale of this valuable asset, particularly in cases of alleged bad behaviour by the other spouse/civil partner. But, is it theirs to reclaim?

Generally, engagement rings are classed as absolute gifts, unless it was made clear that it would have to be returned in the event of a separation. This is unlikely, given the romantic "will you marry me" proposal is not usually qualified with a humdrum list of criteria to fulfil in order to keep the ring within one's grasp. As such, it cannot simply be recouped by an aggrieved spouse/civil partner later down the line. Likewise for un-married couples, the rings is still "for keeps" even if the big day doesn't go ahead ("the gift of an engagement ring shall be presumed to be an absolute gift", Section
3(2) Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1970).

Gifts between spouses and civil partners during a marriage/civil partnership are usually treated as "matrimonial property" i.e. a joint asset that is placed in the matrimonial 'pot' for division. Rarely does this mean that any judge would force someone to sell their own engagement ring and split the proceeds, particularly when the needs of both parties can be met from other available resources. Instead, it is a resource available to the spouse/civil partner keeping the ring and would be taken into account in the overall division of the parties' assets.

The law favours the bejewelled beneficiary, though clients are often unaware that the ring is in fact theirs to keep (which means they can choose to wear it, auction it, or even melt it down!). This is unwelcome news for those who have been entrusted with a family treasure to pass on and have no claim to take it back; if you want to avoid the wrath of your family it is wise to protect your position by way of a pre-nuptial agreement.

Whilst not legally binding, pre and post nuptial agreements are persuasive and, if properly entered into, the court must give appropriate weight to such an agreement when determining how finances are to be divided on a divorce. There remains an unjust stigma that nuptial agreements are 'crude' by their very nature, but if there is a genuine concern that a ring should be returned on separation it is a necessary consideration. It's not too late if you have already tied the knot; there is no specific
timing requirement for entering in to a post-nuptial agreement after your wedding, as long as both parties have entered into the agreement freely with a proper understanding (and legal advice) on the implications of such an agreement.

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