Sunday, June 18, 2006


When it comes to broken engagements, etiquette experts such as Emily Post say that it's appropriate for the bride-to-have-been to return the engagement ring unless it was a heirloom from her family. But what's the right thing to do if a woman receives gifts from her husband's side of the family but the marriage eventually ends in divorce?

A.K., a reader from northern California, split with her former husband 10 years ago. About five years earlier, however, her then-husband had given her a dollhouse that his great-uncle had made.

After her ex-husband's parents passed away last year, A.K.'s son let her know that his father, aunts and uncles wanted the dollhouse back. Neither her husband nor his siblings have directly asked her to return the dollhouse, however, and she wonders whether she should.

I don't think she's in any way obliged to do so. Unless he said otherwise at the time, her ex-husband gave the dollhouse to A.K. as a gift, free and clear. Unlike an engagement ring or a wedding present, gifts made with the implied intention of solidifying the subsequent marriage and thus contingent upon the marriage taking place, the dollhouse had no such strings attached.

Had A.K.'s husband wanted to regain possession of the dollhouse, the time for him to make that argument would have been upon their divorce, as they were deciding which partner would receive which assets from the marriage.

Asking for the return of the dollhouse now would be like me expecting a childhood friend to return the 1967 Roger Maris baseball card that I gave him before we had a falling out. I might like to have it back -- last I checked, the card was going for more than a hundred bucks on eBay -- but I should have no expectation that he'll give it back simply because our relationship turned sour many, many years ago.

Granted, the dollhouse may have significant sentimental value for A.K.'s ex-husband and his side of the family. And, granted, if she hadn't married into his family, her ex-husband most likely never would have given her the dollhouse.

But A.K. did marry into the family, and her husband did give her the gift. It would be thoughtful, even generous if A.K. chose to return it to the family of its maker, but it would not be thoughtless or ungenerous if she didn't. She's under no ethical obligation to do anything, and is perfectly entitled to keep the dollhouse for as long as she wants.

Speaking of ethical obligation, if her husband and his siblings would like A.K. to return the dollhouse, they should ask her directly, rather than put A.K.'s son in the middle of a potentially tense situation. Sure, their indirect approach may reflect the strained relationship between ex-spouses and ex-in-laws, but their hesitance to make the request directly may also indicate that they know that the dollhouse sits with its rightful owner.

If they want to let A.K. know that they'd like a chance to acquire the dollhouse if she should ever decide to part with it, there's no reason no tto tell her so. But when we give someone a gift, as a general rule it's right to assume that thereafter it's someone else's, to keep through thick and thin.


cstraus said...

The dollhouse conundrum--

Your discussion of the "ethics" of the dollhouse issue is legally and morally decent, in my opinion-- but it does not seem to give any weight to a slightly higher standard-- the "Golden Rule."

AK wonders if she should return the dollhouse. This makes it clear she has some sense that what she has a "right" to do may not be the ideal thing.

We don't know enough to say what she "should" do. we do know that it would be "better" if the family asked asked her directly, and/or asked for a right of first refusal. But that has nothing to do with AKs choices-- what someone else does is not in her hands.

If she has no real attachement to the house, and the family which made it does, what on earth would dictate she keep it simply becaese she has a "right" to???

What we she want them to do if the roles were reversed? Why can she not call them and discuss it?

There are many solutions possible which are more conducive to peace and kindness than are suggested by a legalistic analysis.

Anonymous said...

When the marriage is over, it should be divided evenly! What else should happen, except give it to the wife :-)!

Anonymous said...

As a gift given during a marriage as opposed to during an engagement, I think A.K. has every right to keep the doll house. I also agree that if any one of the ex'es wants it back, they need to do their own dirty work of asking for it instead of putting a "child" in the middle of what may become a bone of contention. My advise to A.K. - she should stand her ground in keeping the doll house. After all, if it is indeed a family heirloom of her ex-family, the other half of her children's family, then she can see to it that her and her ex-husband's grandchildren are bequeathed with it in her will.

Can I skim some books from my friend's donation?

A reader we're calling Josh, owns a pickup truck. Josh seems a good enough fellow, indicating that in addition to using his truck as...