Question: My girlfriend and I lived together for several years before we decided to get married, and we had known each other for years before that. We lived as a couple and did everything jointly. We signed together on our lease, and we shared joint checking and savings accounts. We both made about the same amount of money. My paycheck would go into our checking account, which we used to pay most of our bills. She deposited hers into the savings account. Unlike our checking account, which maintained a low but steady balance – in order to pay monthly bills – the savings account really accumulated. Other than some expenses for our very small wedding, we didn’t really touch our savings. I borrowed money from friends and family to buy a nice engagement ring. About a week before the wedding, however, she backed out. I was embarrassed and mad, and I probably said some things that I shouldn’t have. She got upset at me and left. She withdrew all of the money from our savings account, leaving me with a small balance in the checking account and a bunch of bills. I asked her for half of the money from the savings account since both our names were on the account, and she now says that it’s all hers. How do I get back what’s mine?
Answer: In the last scene of the film, “The Graduate,” a young Dustin Hoffman playing Benjamin Braddock stands at the at the rear of the church, pounds on the glass, and shouts at the bride at the altar, “Elaine! Elaine!” The bride breaks free from the grasp of her furious parents to escape with Benjamin. But who does Elaine leave at the altar? Carl. No one remembers Carl. But your question makes me wonder about what ever happened to Carl – whether Carl ever got the money back that he must have spent on Elaine’s ring. He should have because under California law, he was entitled to it. And so are you.
California law has specific provisions regarding gifts given in contemplation of marriage. If one fiancé gives a gift to the other on the assumption that the marriage will take place, and the person who receives the gift refuses to enter into the marriage, the party who gave the gift may recover it or its equivalent value. In most other circumstances, a gift is irrevocable. The moment it is given and received, it is the property of the person who received it. But in the specific context before marriage, the law allows the gift to be revoked. When the marriage is called off, an engagement ring goes back to the party who gave it. So your ex must return the ring.
Your question about your ex’s withdrawal from the savings account involves the law on multiple party accounts. A multiple party account is a bank account on which two or more persons are account holders. On an account such as this, each party typically has the right to withdraw funds from the account. Until 2013, the right to withdraw funds determined who actually owned them. If one party on a multiple party account removed the funds and placed them into an individual account, it was considered the property of the individual who received them. But our legislature changed that rule, and it enacted laws that distinguished the ownership of funds in a multiple party account from the right to withdraw.
Ownership of the funds in a multiple party account is determined by each party’s net contribution. The net contribution of a party is the amount deposited into the account minus any withdrawals from the account. The parties own the money in the in the proportions of the amount of their net contributions. Had you and your ex both contributed to the savings account equally, then you would have a claim to one-half of the account balance. But you state that the savings account consisted solely of her paychecks. This is a problem, as it would appear that the money she took was technically and legally hers.
You are entitled to the ring or its equivalent value, and you should make that demand of your ex. If she does not comply, it may take a lawsuit to get it back. Whether litigation is the best course of action may depend on your desire to fight with your ex or simply move forward with someone else.
Preston Morgan is a partner at Kopper, Morgan & Dietrich, a Davis law firm specializing in family law, estate planning and trust litigation. His column is published every other week in the Davis Enterprise. To pose a question to Preston Morgan, contact him at www.kopperlaw.com
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