A bad romance: Can I get back that gift?

by: Kristin Arnett

03/03/2016 11:03 AM EST
  family law  

When a marriage ends in divorce, the courts help divide the parties’ personal property. However, the same cannot be said for dating relationships that fall apart. So what happens with any gifts that are exchanged during a romance that ultimately fails?

The general rule of gift-giving is that the giver relinquishes all rights as soon as the item is accepted by the recipient. Acceptance of a gift is usually obvious, through a hug or kiss, and then the recipient taking possession of the item. 

There are some instances, however, where acceptance may not be so clear-cut. Some of these are:

  • The recipient knows the gift is on the way, but has not actually gotten it.
  • The giver has arranged for the gift to be delivered, but delivery has not yet occurred.
  • The giver is prepared to hand over the gift, but has not officially done so yet (e.g., holding on to an engagement ring).
  • The recipient is completely unaware of the gift.
  • A reasonable third person is uncertain whether the recipient accepted the item.

In the foregoing scenarios, the giver still owns the item and may retain ownership perpetually. 

There are also situations where ownership is documented legally, like when a vehicle is given as a gift. In these situations, the property belongs to the person named as the owner on the legal document. For example, if a man buys his fiancée a new car to drive but titles it in his name, he remains the car’s owner when the relationship ends. But if he titled the car in his fiancée’s name, then she legally owns the car and this is not negated by the breakup. 

What if dating parties are both titled owners of a vehicle and the relationship ends? They will remain owners, and will have to agree whether one will keep the car, whether they will sell the car and split the money, or whether one should buy out the other’s interest.

One of the toughest gift-giving situations is when one party has accepted a gift, the gift is not titled in anyone’s name, the relationship falls apart, and the giver really wants the gift returned. Scenarios like this often involve gifts of family keepsakes or custom-made items. Unfortunately, it is not easy to get these types of gifts back. The simplest thing to do is to ask that the gift be returned. Who knows … the ex-partner may be more than happy to get rid of relationship mementos. If asking doesn’t work, legal action is possible, although it isn’t a guaranteed solution. The giver might be able to argue that he or she is a “donor” who merely loaned the item for the period of the relationship, and never intended to permanently give up ownership.

Of course, the most frequently asked gift-giving question involves engagement rings. In Michigan, the rule is that a ring given in contemplation of marriage is an impliedly conditional gift that is a completed gift only upon marriage. “If the engagement is called off, for whatever reason, the gift is not capable of becoming a completed gift and must be returned to the donor,” the Michigan Court of Appeals held in Meyer v Mitnick, 244 Mich App 697 (2001).

In the end, the best advice for gift-giving is this: a gift should be given freely, with no strings attached.