Jilted spouses across America likely let out a cheer when a California judge ordered V. Stiviano to return $2.6 million in gifts she received from Donald Sterling. In a previous article, we discussed the legal case Shelly Sterling brought against her husband’s former “friend.” Now a ruling has been made and Donald Sterling’s much younger girlfriend will be forced to return the expensive gifts he bought her, including a $1.8 million home.

At first glance, the ruling in this case might appear to be a ringing endorsement of fidelity. A wife prevails over her husband’s young girlfriend. Cheating spouses everywhere should think twice about giving gifts to their girlfriends and boyfriends, right? Surprisingly, this case had everything to do with what didn’t happen between Donald Sterling and V. Stiviano.

They Call it Californication
During the trial, both Donald Sterling and V. Stiviano testified that their relationship was not sexual. They testified that there was no affair and that they were only friends. While at first these statements may not seem crucial to the case, they were in fact some of the most important testimony in the trial.

One of the key questions in this case was whether Donald Sterling and his wife Shelly had ever separated. Under California law, both spouses must approve the use of any community property in writing. The only exception to this rule is if the spouses are living apart and separated from one another. Any income during such a period is counted as separate income and not included as community property.

Therefore, had Donald Sterling asked his wife for a separation and moved out of the house, the case might have turned out differently. However, both Sterling and his wife testified that they never separated and despite marital problems, they had no intention to divorce. Their statements were backed up by evidence that during Donald Sterling’s relationship with Stiviano, he continued to live with his wife and engage in social activities with her. Since there was no period of separation, their assets continued to be community property.

Mrs. Sterling Had No Knowledge of the Gifts
Ms. Stiviano’s own words came back to haunt her as recordings of her conversations with Donald Sterling were played for the court. Especially damaging to Stiviano’s defense were conversations that made it clear Shelly Sterling had no knowledge of the expensive gifts her husband had given the young woman.

Absent his wife’s written consent, the court ruled that Donald Sterling had improperly given the couple’s community property to his girlfriend. Mrs. Sterling could therefore recover the property and so the court has ordered Ms. Stiviano to return gifts totaling $2.6 million. Ms. Stiviano still has an opportunity to appeal the ruling, so we have likely not heard the end of this story.

Straying spouses in California may want to take a warning from the case of Sterling v. Stiviano. Unless you get your wife’s permission in writing first, that diamond necklace you just bought your girlfriend may only be a loaner.