If your husband gives you jewelry during the marriage, can he take them back if you get divorced? A closer look at the Marie Douglas David Divorce

According to the Hartford Courant, Swedish Countess Marie Douglas David listed her weekly expenses as being more than $53,000 or about $212,000 per month in her financial affidavit, in anticipation of a divorce from UTC chairman George David.
She also listed her assets to include $5,000 in jewelry.   That’s right five thousand. How can that possibly be? Well, notice that Marie wears very little jewelry in court. As a divorce lawyer, I can tell you that that is a part of her strategy as conceived by her divorce attorneys. They want her to appear as innocent, like-able, harmless and sweet as possible, and as far from a gold digging “trophy wife” as they can get. (For more on trophy wives go here: http://www.divorcesaloon.com/when-the-trophy-wife-gets-dumped)
But listen to this: According to the Courant, Marie claims that  “David, 66, who stepped down as UTC’s chief executive last April, acknowledged jewelry purchases for his wife, including a $138,582 diamond engagement ring, $100,000 diamond earrings and a pair of $255,000 diamond earring studs from the prestigious Harry Winston jewelry store.”
I am sure he also got her some pearls, jades, rubies and sapphires over the six years of marriage. But he retained “ownership” of these baubles. I did a double take when I heard that. Certainly, in New York, I was of the impression that a woman’s engagement ring was hers fair and square so long as the marriage occurred. If the marriage does not occur, the ring goes back to the giver. But once they marry, the engagement ring is hers. How does George David get off by keeping the engagement ring? This does not make a lot of sense to me. Apparently, it was some sort of scheme to avoid gift taxes. But still. This makes no sense. Let me pull out one of my reference books here to see what it says about marital gifts. Give me a second…
Okay. In New York, the engagement ring is a conditional gift which becomes the separate property of the wife upon marriage. The cases that say that are Lipton v. Lipton and  Addeo v. Addeo. But it is not clear cut. Because there is some question about whether, upon marriage, the engagement ring becomes marital property subject to equitable distribution. What that means is that some courts may view Marie’s ring as her separate property (meaning its hers) but others might say that when she actually married George, it became marital property and they both own it.
The same is true for any gifts he gave her during the marriage. They would both own any gifts given during marriage, and those gifts would be subject to “equitable distribution.” What that means is that they both would get a share of the proceeds or value of the jewelry.
So I am still not understanding how George David got away with taking these items from his wife, and claiming that they were “gifts.” Maybe the law is different in Connecticut. But it seems to me that those gifts were purchased with marital property during the marriage and that they belong to both of them, even if he retained title in the jewelry for strategic tax reasons.
And her engagement ring is arguably her separate property and should be given to her outright. But he seems a very smart guy and maybe when they got engaged, he did it in such a way that it wouldn’t be seen as an “engagement” ring as much as a “gift.” That would make it marital property.
The short answer: any jewelry your husband buys you during marriage is marital property. If you get divorced, the value of it has to be divvied up between the two of you. It doesn’t matter who holds title, or that he bought it with his credit card, or what. It is marital property if it was purchased during your marriage. As for the engagement ring, the New York courts are leaning towards it being yours.
But, I should caution that in the Addeo case, the court “cautioned that its ruling might have been different had the jewelry been of ‘unsual’ value.”
Marie Douglas David’s engagement ring reportedly cost $138,582.00. That would probably fall under the umbrella of jewelry of “unusal value.” And thus, it may be marital property. In which case, George would get a piece of it.
Originally published December 26, 2008