In the best of all possible worlds, we give our children gifts freely. We attach no strings--unless there's good cause and that, of course, is not the best of all possible worlds. We may be willing to loan/gift our child money to help them keep up on mortgage payments or add an addition to the house. We might specify that is what the money we gift them is to be used for--and not for anything else. Or we can just give them the gift and trust they will use it appropriately.
But what about the valuable sentimental stuff? Let's say we give our future daughter-in-law an heirloom piece of jewelry--a string of pearls our mother used to wear or the diamond from our father's pinkie ring. What a joy to see the jewels out and about with a future member of the family. But then, what do we do if the romance falls apart and the future DIL is the past. Or there's a divorce. Now it's hurtful to see that necklace set off on a sweater of a person who is no longer part of or welcome in the family. Or we want to give it to the next daughter-in-law or a grandchild. Can we attach a post-gift string and ask for the return of a gift?
Philip Galanes dealt with that touchy issue in a recent Social Qs. A woman wrote in to say she gave as a Christmas gift an aquamarine necklace worn by her mother to the girlfriend of her grandson, who had assured her the relationship was serious. The following Christmas she gifted another heirloom piece to the girlfriend. And then the couple broke up. The woman writes: "I asked my grandson to retrieve our family heirlooms, but his ex-girlfriend refused to return them. What can I do?
Not much, although Galanes suggests two possible solutions, neither of them dependent on the grandson. Here's his full reply:
I’m sorry you mistook a “serious” relationship for one that was permanent (or might yield great-granddaughters). That doesn’t always happen, as you now know. The ex is under no obligation, other than a sympathetic one, to return gifts that were freely given to her. Givers retain no ownership in gifts.
But perhaps a call from you to the ex about the sentimental value of the jewelry may help? When something similar happened in my family, my mother agreed to buy back the heirlooms. (She was furious about it, but she did it.) Is that possible? And next time, think twice before handing over a tiara you intend to take back if circumstances change.