Judith Saunders, a retired British teacher, recently spent five years and £100,000 (that’s over $164,000.00) in a London court trying to get back the wedding ring she bought for her now ex-husband when they got married forty years ago. The ring cost £550 (approximately $900.00). Crazy? I think so. But I’ve seen it happen over and over again … people fighting “on principle” over something that’s worth a tiny fraction of what the fighter pays to get it back. That happens a lot when couples are fighting over jewelry in a divorce. Is it worth it? Like everything else in family law, the answer is … it depends.
The first thing you have to understand when you are fighting over jewelry in a divorce is that jewelry is one of the most difficult items of property to fight for. Why? Its portable. Its easy to hide. And its often next to impossible to prove who has it … or who took it.
Along with the extremely difficult problem of actually locating the jewelry when a couple decides to divorce, there is also the often equally sticky problem of determining who is entitled to own the jewelry in the first place. Typically, engagement and wedding rings are gifts. They are the sole property of the person to whom they were given. (Assuming of course, that you actually go through with the marriage. If someone gives you an engagement ring and then you later call off the wedding, that person may be entitled to get the ring back … but that’s a post for a different day!)
A problem arises, however, when one person (typically the male) uses grandma’s heirloom diamond in his fiancé’s engagement or wedding ring. At the time of the engagement, when everything is wine and roses, that seems like such a symbolic and romantic gesture. After the marriage falls apart, however, the same diamond that once symbolized undying love, often becomes the main battleground in the war over the “stuff.” The wife claims the ring was the gift. The husband claims that the ring may have been a gift, but grandma’s diamond was just “on loan.” And the battle is on.
An equally interesting problem arises over the jewelry that the spouses acquire during the marriage. Again, the spouse who received the jewelry will undoubtedly claim that it was a gift from the other spouse. But, when the value of those “gifts” – all of which were purchased with marital money and would otherwise clearly be marital assets – starts to add up, the “giver” will often see the jewelry as less of a “gift” and more of a “joint investment.”
The final problem with fighting over jewelry is that it often has a high emotional value, but a low dollar value. Many times its not worth what you paid for it. Its no secret that the retail mark up on jewelry is pretty high. (Some would call it astronomical, but who am I to say?) Consumers pay way more for jewelry than wholesalers. What’s more, the resale value of used jewelry is pretty horrible. Jewelry that you paid thousands of dollars for will often only sell for hundreds of dollars later. That’s especially true of engagement and wedding rings. (Not surprisingly, most newlyweds are not eager to start their married lives with wedding rings from someone else’s divorce.)
So, what do you do if you find yourself fighting over the family jewels … particularly the “phantom jewelry” that no one can seem to find once the divorce papers have been filed? I guess that depends on what the fight is worth to you.
If heirloom jewelry is involved, and it is clear who has the jewelry (i.e. the wedding rings are still on your wife’s hand) then the jewelry becomes an item of negotiation, just like anything else in the divorce. What you have to decide is how much it is worth to you to fight to get an heirloom piece of jewelry back and what you are willing to give to your spouse in exchange for the jewelry.
On the other hand, if you were the receiver of jewelry that you know perfectly well has been in your spouse’s family for generations, the question for you is how much of a dirt bag you want to be by holding on to it, or how much you want to use the heirloom as leverage so you can get something else that you want. (Just remember if you do that, what goes around comes around. So, if you’re going to negotiate by playing hardball with something your spouse really cares about, you can’t be surprised when your spouse does the same thing to you.)
If no one can “find” the jewelry you are fighting about, that’s much harder. You can’t divide what you don’t have. Either you’re going to have to find a way to locate the jewelry, or you’re going to have to be able to present enough evidence so that the judge can clearly see that your spouse has hidden the jewelry from you. In that case, the judge may order your spouse to produce the jewelry.
If you’re lucky, like the British teacher Judith Saunders, you may eventually get your jewelry back. But, if your spouse continues to claim s/he doesn’t have the jewelry, you may have to settle for getting the dollar value of what the jewelry was worth. Either way, unless you’re talking about some pretty seriously valuable jewelry, its very likely that, just like Judith Saunders, you’re going to end up spending a whole lot more on the fight than what the jewelry was actually worth.
To read more about Judith Saunders, go to: