The Unlimited Wedding Ring Exemption Has Some Limits, Illinois Judge Says

December 5, 2017

For someone who owns an expensive wedding ring or a rare bible, Illinois is the place to file bankruptcy, because both are exempt.

In 2016, the Seventh Circuit held that a rare first edition Book of Mormon bible, worth perhaps $10,000, is exempt under Illinois law. In re Robinson, 811 F.3d 267 (7th Cir. 2016). To read ABI’s discussion of Robinsonclick here.

On Nov. 20, Bankruptcy Judge Jack B. Schmetterer of Chicago ruled that a wedding ring and an engagement ring are exempt as “necessary wearing apparel” without regard to value, as long as the wearer is still married to the person who gave it.

Both cases arose under the same provision of Illinois law providing an exemption for “necessary wearing apparel, bible, school books, and family pictures.” Although other provisions in the Illinois exemption statute include monetary limitations, that section has none.

In Judge Schmetterer’s case, a husband and wife in chapter 7 did not originally schedule the wife’s wedding ring as “necessary wearing apparel.” When the trustee questioned the scheduled value of $1,500, they amended their schedules to claim that the ring was covered by the unlimited exemption for “necessary wearing apparel.”

The trustee challenged the exemption, in part because the wife did not wear the ring to the Section 341 meeting and admittedly did not wear it always.

Judge Schmetterer’s opinion traces the origins of wedding and engagement rings to the Middle Ages. He said, for instance, that wedding rings for brides have been “commonplace” since the tenth century and grew in popularity for both husbands and wives by the eleventh century. Wedding rings “became solidified as both a religious and social tradition” in Christian and Judaic traditions.

Interestingly, Judge Schmetterer said that engagement rings worth “a large portion of the potential groom’s annual salary” became popular in the 1940s when states abolished claims for breach of promise.

A “wedding ring has become common custom, even a necessary sign of being married,” Judge Schmetterer said. Given the Illinois mandate, which “instructs in favor of statutory interpretation supporting the exemption,” he held “that a wedding ring or engagement ring worn usually by a man or woman still married to the same person as when the ring was tendered before or during a wedding ceremony qualifies as ‘necessary wearing apparel’ under the Illinois exemption.”

The holding appears to include dicta where Judge Schmetterer puts limits on the otherwise unlimited exemption. He suggests that a divorced person would not be eligible for the unlimited exemption. The language of the opinion also suggests that an engagement ring given after marriage may not be entirely exempt. One supposes, though, that a widow or widower who had not remarried would be entitled to the unlimited exemption.

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