Rings, necklaces and watches aren’t among the top priorities that clients ask me to deal with during the stressful period of break-up and divorce. However, the issue of who keeps the jewellery after a split is one that has proved troublesome for many UHNW divorcees, with emotional consequences that are often significantly more far-reaching than first imagined.
The issue is long contested and its legal origins in the UK date back to the 1870s, and the Married Women’s Property Act. This law presumed that any gifts of jewellery to a wife from a husband was "for the decoration of her person" and not hers to own.
However, after this act was abolished it was considered that a gift would remain the property of the recipient. This could only be contested if there was sufficient evidence that would prove an intention from the recipient to return the gift after an agreed period of time or change of circumstance.
Today, that notion stands true and was reinforced by law in 1970. This indicated that an engagement ring is presumed entirely as a gift from one person to another, unless there was clear intention that the ring would be returned at any point, for example if the ring was an heirloom. It makes you wonder what might happen to the Duchess of Cambridge’s engagement ring were she and Prince William ever to split.
What is an heirloom?
After making this point to clients, many ask the question of "How do I prove it’s an heirloom?" It’s a contentious issue, because the definition of "heirloom’" isn’t necessarily black and white. Further questions include, ‘Is a gift only considered an heirloom after a certain number of years or owners?’ and "Does an heirloom have to be old?"
In the circumstances of a split, steps should always be taken to safeguard your interests by obtaining proof that what you have been given by a family member is indeed an heirloom and can be traced by history of ownership.
This can be done by being the recipient of a note from the relative who gave you the heirloom, stating how it came to be passed onto them before it came to you.
What you do with your wedding band after divorce is entirely up to each individual. A growing trend, originating from the US, is to remould the ring and repurpose the band as a "divorce ring". Others request it to be melted down for use as another piece.
Like all divorce law, the division of assets is dependent on facts and leaves little room for negotiation. Therefore, always bear in mind the details of gifts given and received during your marriage and ensure your separation plans are adapted accordingly
A pre-nuptial agreement, particularly in relation to family heirlooms that may have significant sentimental value, can take the sting out of asset allocation on divorce and help avoid any nasty surprises further down the line.
Amanda McAlister is Head of Family Law at Slater & Gordon