Ask LH: Can I Force My Ex-Girlfriend To Give Back My Family Heirloom?

Ask LH: Can I Force My Ex-Girlfriend To Give Back My Family Heirloom?

Dear Lifehacker, I have split from my ex-girlfriend whose home was in her name. A few months after moving out, I asked her to return an heirloom which she claimed she no longer had. After two years, my daughter discovered this very piece at her home. What are my rights to retrieve my possession back?
Thanks, Clock Chaser

Antique clock image from Shutterstock

Dear CC,

Sneaky woman! We presented your query to Angela Tondelstrand, a lawyer with Schultz Toomey O’Brien Lawyers who specialises in family law.

According to Tondelstrand, your rights in this situation will depend on a range of factors, including the amount of time you’ve been separated for. This is the main sticking point that could cause problems in retrieving your property.

Explains Tondelstrand: “The limitation period to make a claim for a property adjustment order (property settlement) between former de facto partners under the Family Law Act is two years after the date of separation.”

Because you have been separated for more than two years, you can’t apply for a property adjustment order through the family law courts. That you were allegedly unaware about the heirloom being in her possession unfortunately doesn’t change this.

However, there are still a few legal avenues open to you. The main hurdle you need to cross is proof of ownership: you’d need to demonstrate that the heirloom was not passed on to your ex-girlfriend by agreement, which is easier said than done.

Check your archived emails to see if she ever explicitly admitted that the heirloom belongs to you. If she also fibs about not having it in the same email, all the better.

If you decide to go down this route, your claim would go through a Small Claims Court or Tribunal, depending on the value of the heirloom. (“Each Court and Tribunal have financial limits,” explains Tondelstrand.)

“Whilst it is trite to say that possession is 9/10ths of the law, in this case the lapsing of time, and lack of jurisdiction of the family law courts outside the 2 years period is what could cause your reader difficulty getting things started,” explains Tondelstrand.

In short, you should have grabbed that thing while the grabbin’ was good!

We’re also going to throw this one over to our readers — have you ever been embroiled in a court battle to retrieve property from an ex? Let us know how you fared in the comments.


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  • I found it a terrible and nasty affair. Honesty and fairness meant that you lost more. For anyone involved in such a process I suggest, as the article states, grabbing all that is yours and dear to you before you leave. NEVER leave it to the court. In the end it is only possessions though and the items only hold value for your lifetime. If money and items mean so much to the other party then the decision to part can only be a good one.

  • Contact her employer and tell them about what she is doing. It shows poor character, and employers will take that into account when considering promotions. It may make her return the item.

  • I’d potentially have another family member retrieve it. Your mother would be ideal. Once the family know it’s there and she’s been caught red handed then sending someone who is older, and possibly frail to retrieve it would go a long way into shaming her into giving it back.

  • The question is, how much do you really care? Move on, it has been years. Life is too short to worry about little stuff.

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