When the romance ends: legal issues in getting back gifts

Relationships, Divorce, Money

Did you have a good Valentine’s Day? If so, congratulations. If not, it seems you have ample company. A number of divorce lawyers claim they see a spike in business around Valentine’s Day when expectations for the holiday are not met, with disastrous results for the relationship.

For married couples, the courts will work to devise an equitable division of property during a divorce. But there is no “breakup court” for dating and engaged couples. Here’s a look at some of the possible legal implications of unwanted romantic gifts, both from the giver’s and recipient’s point of view.

General gift laws

As a general rule, a person who opts to give a gift to another person relinquishes rights to that item upon acceptance by the recipient—which must be clear and unequivocal from an objective standpoint. In other words, a giver remains the “owner” of the gift until the precise moment the recipient manifests receipt and acceptance of the item (e.g., by jumping up and down exuberantly, dispensing lingering hugs, or placing the gift upon one’s finger). Typically, acceptance is obvious and not at issue, however the concept can be a little grayer in some scenarios, as when:

  • The recipient is aware the gift is coming, but has not yet actually received it
  • The giver has arranged for delivery of the gift to the recipient, but this has not yet occurred
  • The giver is ready to give the gift, but has not technically handed it over yet (e.g., holding on to the ring when a marriage proposal has gone awry)
  • The recipient is not aware he or she has received a gift
  • A reasonable third person would be unsure as to whether the recipient has decided to accept the item from the giver

In such instances, the person offering the gift maintains ownership of item and may retain that ownership perpetually. In other words, just because a recipient is aware a diamond ring is coming, does not mean the gift automatically belongs to her if she and her significant other break up prior to the final rose ceremony.

Legal (documented) ownership

Basic gift laws aside, any item that is titled is the property of the individual(s) listed on that document, period. For example, if one partner buys a new car for the other and the relationship later fizzles, the legal owner of that vehicle will not change with the updated relationship status. If the purchaser placed the other partner’s name on the title to the vehicle, that now ex-partner remains the owner indefinitely.

If both partners are on the title to the vehicle, both remain owners and will have to decide on the best way to move forward, such as agreeing to sell the vehicle and split the proceeds, or one buying the other out.

Getting out of a bind

The most difficult situation exists when an ex-partner has accepted a gift, the gift is not titled in anyone’s name, and the giver would really like to get that gift back now that the relationship is over. This may involve gifts of personal family heirlooms or a custom-designed, one-of-a-kind piece. To put it bluntly, this will be an uphill battle, mostly for the reasons explained above. However, if certain conditions exist within the transaction, there may be a way for the giver to recover his or her investment in the failed relationship.

First and foremost, just ask. You never know; the gift recipient may not be particularly keen on keeping mementos from the relationship. He or she may be eager to willingly return something that means so much to the other party.

If that doesn’t work, a lawsuit may be possible, but it will be a stretch. One way to recover property is to argue the gift was never meant as a gift in the first place—at least, not in the legal sense. The giver argues that he or she is a “donor” who merely loaned the item to the recipient for a period of time spanning the relationship, never intending to permanently relinquish ownership (a key element in the legal gifting analysis).

In the context of engagement rings, courts have sometimes upheld a “conditional gift” theory to effect a return of the diamond upon the failed commitment. Under this theory, the court assumes an engagement ring is given in contemplation of the parties getting married. If this condition fails to come to fruition, the transaction is no longer considered to be a true gift, and the recipient must legally return the ring for failure to meet the condition. While legally creative, this option is not universally available – and its success may depend on the whims of the court.

In the end, no one wants to face this situation of fighting over the material residue of a failed romance, but there are options to recover the items if necessary. Perhaps the best advice is to fully let go of anything you choose to give someone else. Ideally, no gift should be conditional. Such an approach can help avoid disaster in the long run.