Who gets the wedding ring in Wisconsin divorce?

Although Wisconsin is a no-fault divorce state and doesn't consider adultery in determining alimony payments, when it comes to material objects such as wedding rings, the courts may choose to take a side of “fault.” The WI courts consider a wedding (or engagement) ring a conditional gift, in a divorce the person who purchased the ring will more than likely have the legal right to have it returned to him or her during property division.

The Wisconsin law in Action

In the 1985 case between Dennis G. Brown (plaintiff-appellant) versus Terry L. Thomas (defendant-respondent), she was ordered to return the ring. During the trial, the court concluded that “the public policy embodied in Wisconsin's no-fault divorce law, ch. 767, applies to actions for recovery of gifts conditioned on marriage. Thus, an inquiry as to how the engagement was dissolved is not necessary in a common law action based on the theory of conditional gift and unjust enrichment.”

When a verbal agreement outweighs a written contract

When accepting the wedding or engagement ring, there is an understanding that a marriage will happen. So, according to Wisconsin courts, regardless of there being an actual contract (even before the wedding certificate is signed), there is an understood verbal agreement to follow through. And if that agreement does not happen: “Recovery [of the wedding ring] is based upon the universally recognized moral principle that one who has received a benefit has the duty to make restitution when to retain such benefit would be unjust.”

In a no-fault state, returning the ring can become a difficult depending on the terms. For example, if the ring purchaser chooses to call off the wedding even if the ring recipient still wants to get married, should the ring be returned to the purchaser?

In that case, it is the purchaser's decision to not meet the condition. Or, if the ring recipient finds that it wouldn't be beneficial to either party to walk down the aisle and calls off the wedding, one could argue that the condition was initially met until finding out further information that would result in the risk of a divorce.

Muddy reasons like this are usually why Wisconsin courts opt out of choosing sides on who was wrong or right and focus on the final result: no wedding.

Other Jewelry: Conditional Gifts Versus Traditional Gifts

When that duty (getting married) is not met for any reason, then the condition is not met. And the ring must be returned. Unlike a Christmas gift or a Valentine's Day gift, or any other voluntary gift in which there are no strings attached, a wedding/engagement ring is the exception to the rule.

Although there are cases in which the ring recipient would argue that accepting the proposal is enough to meet the condition, courts often lean more toward the final goal: the execution of getting married, not just to be engaged.


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