We can’t agree on whether it’s Yanny or Laurel, but one thing we can all come together on is that keeping a family heirloom that belongs to your ex after a breakup is the among the tackiest, no-class-having things a motherfucker can do.
Today that honor goes to Isaiah Silva, the ex-husband of Kurt Cobain’s daughter Frances Bean Cobain. He managed to score Cobain’s 1959 Martin D-18E six-string acoustic guitar in their divorce settlement, in what you might call a major dick move.
While you can blame Silva for taking it, you can’t really blame him for wanting it. It’s kind of a big deal, seeing as how it was the last guitar Cobain was known to play, worth millions and used in his famous MTV Unplugged performance in November of 1993. If you’re unfamiliar with it, all you really need to know is the raw, stripped down performance it was used in is considered one of the best performances of the year, of the entire MTV Unplugged series, of the band, of any acoustic performance, and also of any live album, ever:
A few months later, on April 8, 1994, Cobain’s body would be discovered in his Seattle home after he went missing for six days. Frances Bean Cobain was just a few years old when her father died, and she would later come into an inheritance of part of his estate, reportedly around $450 million, and the rights to his likeness and image. Obviously, she ended up with the six string, too.
At least, until she married Silva (without a pre-nup) in 2014, who claims she gave it to him as a wedding gift. Cobain disputes this, according to TMZ, who reported she said there’s no way she’d hand over a “priceless family heirloom.” Making matters worse, is that Silva allegedly held the guitar hostage as soon as Cobain filed for divorce in 2016 and has had it this whole time.
That’s not all Silva asked for: In addition to his request for $25K a month in spousal support, he also wanted half of the dough he claims she made off business deals the two years they were together.
But in the end, he didn’t get the spousal support (which at one point Cobain said she was open to giving) or the family residence, or half of the money she made off business deals while they were together. Just the guitar.
That’s important, because that indicates that after some sort of cost-benefit analysis, she made a deal, happily or not, to avoid paying out a lot of other stuff. Even divorce negotiations that drag on will often resolve before a court date because divorce trials are expensive, and you never know how a judge will rule. That seems to be the case here.
“Frances decided she wanted Isaiah out of her life for good, and didn’t want the mess of a trial to bog her down,” TMZ reported. “We’re told she knows her decision may piss off lots of Nirvana fans, but it’s her life and she wants to move on.”
It did piss off fans of Nirvana, some of whom blame her:
But most people, whether fans of Nirvana or fans of acting right, seem to blame him:
That’s because keeping family heirlooms is not a good look whether it’s a famous rock star’s guitar or a worthless bit of costume jewelry. “Keep gifts, return heirlooms” is the general rule, no matter how much you hate a person.
“Family heirlooms should stay with the family bloodline,” writes Jann Blackstone, an expert on custody, divorce and mediation at Ex Etiquette. That’s in response to a woman who writes in that her son is divorcing and she wants the jewelry back that she gave her daughter-in-law.
“Good ex-etiquette suggests that if the gifts in question are family heirlooms, say your grandmother’s broach that your mother passed on to you and you passed it on to your daughter-in-law, then it is only right that she return the jewelry,” Blackstone adds.
There are a few important distinctions here: you can’t just ask for expensive gifts back because the relationship didn’t work out — that’s just as tacky. The other caveat is if you have kids and the intended items are meant to be passed on. That isn’t the case with Cobain and Silva, who had no children.
It’s not just a case of etiquette, it’s also a matter of law. Generally, whatever inherited items you bring into a marriage remain yours upon that marriages dissolution, including heirlooms, because the law views them as personal property, not marital property. Even if the item is left to you after you’ve gotten hitched, it’s still generally considered your separate property and not marital property.
This does not include any engagement ring, which is considered a gift, unless the ring itself is an heirloom, and then things get complicated. It’s still considered a gift, and while the etiquette remains identical to any heirloom — return it, return it, return it — it’s still largely left up to the person who received it. This could be contested, though, in which case, you’d likely need to prove it was never meant to be returned by gift or pre-nup, and you’d need a lawyer for that. (Cobain and Silva also had no pre-nup.)
Which brings us back to the guitar. TMZ said their sources indicated that since Cobain was so young when her father died, “it’s not like she had lots of memories” about the guitar. That’s not really the reason we return heirlooms after a breakup. Heirlooms need not be attached to distinct memories of their previous relative, nor do they need to have actual value, to be of value.
But the lack of attachment may explain Cobain’s decision to give it up. Given the guitar’s potential value (ones not owned by famous deceased rock stars only go for around $6,500, but again, this one is worth millions), it seems like — at least to all of us commoners — that Silva scored big. Had Cobain paid out spousal support at the requested $25k a month, given that in California you’re only on the hook for half the length of the marriage, and theirs was over in 21 months, he would have only netted around $300,000.
But that’s the funny thing about divorce. While some people will go head to head over a few hundred dollars in a shared iTunes library, other people will walk away from large sums of money just to get the hell away from someone.
In spite of what looks like a tacky divorce move, that’s why we should try very hard to refrain from judging Silva for wanting the guitar, or Cobain for giving it up. Cobain may very well have valued her freedom from Silva more than fighting in court over an instrument or still having to look at that dude. If that doesn’t make sense to you, it’s probably because you’ve never had to make that sort of choice.