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Wedding Gifts and Divorce
Jan L. Warner & Jan Collins

Question: After 29 years, my husband moved out unexpectedly after telling me that our relationship had been dead for years. This came as quite a surprise to me, not to mention our oldest daughter whose wedding is in just three months. She became irate and told her father what she thought of him for leaving. He now says he will not participate in or pay for her wedding. I don’t have the money to cover this large expense ($25,000). My lawyer does not seem very optimistic that a judge will require him to pay. I would appreciate your thoughts and guidance.

Answer: We agree with your lawyer. Since your daughter has been “emancipated” for years, unless she has a disability, she is no longer entitled to receive any support from either you or your husband. Payment for a wedding is a gratuitous gesture by parents, whether of in-tact households or who are separated or divorced.

Bottom Line: Unless your daughter and her father patch things up or other arrangements to pay the tab are made, we know of no legal authority that would force your husband to write this check.

Question: My wife and I were married late last year, but only lived together for six months before we called it quits. She and her parents were furious about spending all that money for a big wedding, and she and her mother say that if I don’t agree to give her all of the wedding gifts, they will “put me through it.” I don’t intend to give in because I don’t think this is quite fair given the number of gifts from guests invited by my side. Are there any rules we can go by in order to shortcut our disagreement and avoid going the lawyer-court route?

Answer: Emily Post once said that since wedding presents are sent to the bride, not the groom, she owns them. But Ms. Post also inaccurately pointed out in the 1930’s that men of honor never divorce their wives except for criminal acts. In reality, the question of who owns the wedding gifts at divorce has been treated differently by courts in different states.

Even though wedding gifts may have been given to the husband and wife by their relatives and friends, generally speaking, there is no presumption of ownership since neither purchased the goods or had an obligation to provide gifts to the other. On the other hand, if gifts are made to the couple, they become joint owners.

In either event, the question is still whether the gift was made to one or both. And that question is one of fact for a court to decide based on all of the surrounding circumstances. For example, a pearl bracelet is a personal gift obviously meant for the female, while a gift of fishing gear delivered to the bride before the marriage is generally assumed to be intended for the male.

On the other hand, gifts meant to beautify the home cannot be treated as personal to either spouse and raise more difficult questions. Thus, in determining ownership, some courts have looked to the origin of the gift (that is, which guest gave it) while others have based their decisions on who will use and enjoy the asset. Oftentimes, like household goods used by both husband and wife living in the same house, ownership of non-personal gifts are often treated as being jointly owned. And if either spouse wishes to claim otherwise, he or she is generally required to prove his or her position by clear evidence.

Finally, there are some items -- pots and pans, dishes, toilet paper, garbage pails, etc. – that are so insignificant that courts loathe wasting taxpayers’ money on dividing them.

When two sides are diametrically opposed as you and your estranged wife seem to be, going it alone without lawyers may be a mistake. But a bigger mistake may be paying for the cost of proving you are right.

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