Engagement rings in Rhode Island Divorce proceedings are not typically a source of contention between the spouses. Typically an engagement ring is not considered a marital asset. Therefore it is not subject to the Rhode Island family court's power of equitable distribution (i.e. power to divide the marital portion of assets between the divorcing parties). In fact, the vast majority of cases where the wife's engagement ring is seriously debated occurs usually when the engagement ring has a substantial value and something changed about to the ring after the marriage.
The theory is understandable. A marriage is a contract though it is seldom seen in that light by the parties. For instance, when a man asks a woman to marry him and offers an engagement ring, the ring is the consideration for one contract. In that case, the man is asks the woman to marry him and offers the ring to essentially "seal the deal" so to speak. However, it then falls to the woman to decide if she will say "yes" and accept the offered ring. If the woman says "yes" and accepts the offered ring, then a contract has been formed. The man has made and offer and in return for that offer has asked for a promise that she will marry him and an acceptance of the ring.
Let's assume that the man no longer wants to marry the woman and changes his mind. The man has now broken the engagement contract. If he demands the ring back, the woman has no obligation to return the ring so long as she has still been prepared to marry the man and hold up her end of the "bargain."
However, if the woman no longer wants to marry the man and changes her mind, she is obligated to return the ring because she has broken their engagement contract and she is generally not allowed to profit from her own breach of the engagement contract which is exactly what would occur if she were to break the engagement contract AND keep the man's offered ring as well. If it were otherwise, this would lead to women accepting men's proposals just to get the ring and not because they even intended to marry the man and simply tell the man she has changed her mind shortly thereafter and keep the ring.
When a marriage occurs, it is a separate and distinct contract made at the time of the ceremony where both parties perform as they promised rather than simply exchanging an offer for a promise. In that case the wedding rings themselves seal that contract of marriage as well as the promises they make to each other for the duration of the marriage.
Therefore, if nothing happens to the engagement ring during the marriage, it should be considered pre-marital or at least non-marital in nature because it existed and belonged to the woman before the marriage contract was formed. Thus, it should not be within the power of the Rhode Island Divorce and Family Court to distribute it. It was the woman's property before the marriage and simply wearing the ring during the marriage does not make it marital in nature.
The issue arises when something happens to the ring during the marriage. Consider for example that a stone in the ring becomes chipped and as a result it loses value. Let's say that marital income from either the husband, wife or both is used to purchase homeowner's insurance. Now, if an insurance claim is made for the damage to the ring and funds received from that claim are used to replace that stone (i.e. diamond, etc. . ) now, marital funds have been used to repair or replace a part of the ring. Once marital funds are used in any way on the ring, the previously pre-marital ring now is commingled with marital income (which is a marital asset) and they now convert the character of the ring from pre-marital to marital.
Other arguable examples that would change the ring to a marital character are:
1) Adding new stones using marital income.
2) Fixing the setting using marital income.
3) Pledging the ring as collateral for something marital being purchased as a couple.
Christopher A. Pearsall
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West Warwick, RI 02893
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