Q. My son is getting a divorce after almost two years of marriage. I had given his wife several pieces of my jewelry, as well as other expensive items, as gifts on several occasions since I thought this marriage was forever. Can I ask her to return these gifts to me? What’s good ex-etiquette?
A. Divorce and separation certainly complicates issues, especially gift giving. Good ex-etiquette suggests that if the gifts in question are family heirlooms, say your grandmother’s broach that your mother passed on to you and you passed it on to your daughter-in-law, then it is only right that she return the jewelry. Family heirlooms should stay with the family bloodline. This would not be the case if your son and former daughter-in-law had a child. Then it would not be uncommon that she keep the family heirlooms because she could safely pass them on to your grandchild. But, you implied they had no children together, so in that case, heirlooms should be returned to you, or possibly your son.
If these gifts, no matter how expensive, were offered from the heart because she was your daughter-in-law, say on Christmas you gave her a Rolex, or on her birthday you gave her a ring from Tiffany’s, no matter their cost, those gifts are hers to keep forever. Expecting her to return them under these circumstances would be extremely tacky and very bad ex-etiquette.
Along these same lines, married seniors with children often have difficulty splitting up both old and new possessions when one passes before the other. Technically, if married, everything passes on to the surviving spouse unless there is a will or a special note distributing special keepsakes among family members.
Because of issues surrounding retirement, many seniors do not marry and splitting up their things after one passes can turn into world war three. For example, children of the deceased want keepsakes that were promised at one time, but that was not mentioned to the surviving party so the items are sold or given to someone else and there is a permanent rift that is difficult to fix.
To prevent disagreements in a time of sadness and stress, good ex-etiquette dictates that the couple consider putting in place a “living together agreement” outlining what should happen financially should someone pass. Simply make a list of the special possessions, particularly heirlooms, that are to be distributed to specific family members should someone pass. If you don’t want to discuss the distribution with family members prior, think about making a video documenting your desires and keeping it in a safe place until needed. There are so many ins and outs to this, best bet is to contact an attorney to help you put your plan into place.
Ex-Etiquette®, runs in countless newspapers and websites all over the world. It is written by Dr. Jann Blackstone, who specializes in child custody, divorce, and stepfamily mediation. Dr. Jann is the author of seven books on divorce, remarriage, and co-parenting, specifically, Ex-Etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After Divorce and Separation, Ex-Etiquette for Weddings, and Ex-Etiquette for Holidays. Dr. Blackstone is also the founder of Bonus Families,501 c3 non-profit organization dedicated to peaceful coexistence between divorced or separated parents and their combined families.