Edward R. Weinstein, Esq.

In a New Jersey Divorce, why is the wife allowed to keep the engagement ring?

As a New Jersey Divorce Attorney for nearly 20 years, I have been asked this question more times than I can count. This is always a “touchy” issue when representing the husband in a New Jersey Divorce. First, obviously this is usually quite an expensive endeavor. Therefore, when equitable distribution of property comes into play, men expect to get 50% of the value of the ring. Second, the symbolic aspect of an engagement ring brings out the emotions of the husband now that the marriage is dead. As we all know, emotions can affect our ability to be logical and rational. Third, I have also noticed that the shorter period that the marriage lasted, the husband seems to get even more upset over this issue. I feel this is due to the husband still feeling the “sticker shock” of this purchase. In the back of their minds, they do not feel they received their “monies worth.” Furthermore, in a long-term marriage, so many assets and liabilities have come and gone over the years, causing the engagement ring to be less of an issue. In any event, I have never represented a husband who was not distressed when I have to tell them, “she keeps it.”

In New Jersey, an engagement ring is viewed as a conditional gift. If an engagement is broken off before marriage, a man is entitled to get back the engagement ring because it is conditioned on marriage. However, in the case of a couple getting divorced, a man in New Jersey is not entitled to getting back the engagement ring he gave his former wife because it becomes a completed gift upon marriage. With that said, after the wedding takes place, the engagement ring is not subject to equitable distribution and fully belongs to the woman.

The most recent case that further illustrates this New Jersey law is Winer v. Winer, 241 N.J. Super. 510 (1990). The defendant, Kenneth Winer, gave the plaintiff, Lee Epstein Winer, a four-carat engagement ring after four years of dating. The ring had extreme sentimental value to the defendant because his late mother had left it to him. Throughout the engagement and marriage, the ring was stored in a safety deposit box due to its value and was seldom worn, only on special occasions. When the couple divorced, the defendant sued to, among other things, have the engagement ring returned to him. However, the court held that the engagement ring was given to the plaintiff as a conditional gift subject to actual marriage and was not subject to equitable distribution.

In the case, the defendant alleged that the gift of an engagement ring does not become effective until after the marriage ceremony is complete. He therefore contended that the ring was marital property, and thus subject to equitable distribution. In presenting his argument, the defendant relied on Weiss v. Weiss, 226 N.J. Super. 281 (1988), claiming that the ring was given in anticipation of marriage and should therefore be treated as any other marital asset upon a divorce. However, the Weiss court “did not contemplate that an engagement ring, traditionally a conditional gift for the sole use of a woman, should be considered a marital asset such as a house.”

In the court’s discussion of the defendant’s argument, it held that it was one without merit. The court reasoned that the ring was a conditional gift, only returnable if the engagement itself was broken off prior to marriage. The Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division agreed with the Lipton court, Lipton v. Lipton, 514 N.Y.S. 2d 158 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 1986), in saying “the question of the conditional nature of the gift became moot upon the marriage when the ring unconditionally became the property of the plaintiff. Therefore, the ring given prior to the marriage retains its character as separate property not subject to equitable distribution.” Although the case was remanded to the Family Part for reconsideration on a variety of other issues, the judgment was affirmed that the plaintiff would keep her engagement ring post-divorce.

If you or a loved one is facing the demise of their marriage, please never hesitate to contact my office at 732-246-0909 or Edward@weinsteinlawoffice.com