Whether you need to return your engagement ring is a question that often arises in family law matters and can occur before or after a marriage takes place. In Virginia, disputes over the engagement ring are a great example of how personal property issues can become complicated upon a couple’s separation.
The Conditional Gift Theory Prior to Marriage
Traditionally, an engagement ring is given from one person to another in consideration for an agreement to be married. But what happens if the recipient of the ring calls of the marriage before it takes place?
In most states, an engagement ring is not merely a gift from a to-be spouse to another, it is a conditional gift. A conditional gift is given to the recipient with the expectation that an agreed-upon event will occur in the future. If the future event does not occur, then the giver is entitled to a return of the gift. In the case of the engagement ring, if the engagement is broken before the wedding takes place, most courts will order a return of the ring.
The Hart Balm Act
However, in 1968 the Virginia General Assembly passed a law which eradicated causes of action for the breach of promise to marry. Known as the Hart Balm Act, Virginia Code Section 8.01-220 prevents a party from suing their former fiancé for damages if the wedding is called off.
So what does this mean for the engagement ring? Well, the Virginia courts are divided. One interpretation of the Hart Balm Act is that any civil suit based on the breakdown of an engagement is prohibited – including actions for a return of the engagement ring. Under this theory, a court will not order a return of the ring or money damages for its value.
Under another view, the Hart Balm Act is read in conjunction with the conditional gift theory. According to this interpretation, the Hart Balm Act only precludes civil actions for money damages related to a broken promise to marry – such as humiliation or distress. But actions to recover property, like the engagement ring, are allowed and the court will order a return of the ring.
So whether you can keep the engagement ring if the wedding is called off depends on the Virginia court in which you bring your claim. However, the Virginia Court of Appeals has a case pending before it and a decision in that case could bring uniformity to the law in Virginia.
After the Marriage
An engagement ring given in consideration of marriage becomes your own separate property once the marriage takes place. This means that even if you later get divorced, you can keep the ring and will not be ordered to return it to your ex-spouse, with one exception. If you and your ex-spouse agreed that the engagement ring would be returned in the event of separation or divorce, then you can be required to honor your agreement and return the ring.
There are a number of considerations to be aware of when dividing and allocating property during a divorce. If you are currently going through a dissolution of marriage action or are considering divorce, the family law attorneys at DiPietro Law Group, PLLC are here for you. Call us today at (888) 530-4374 for a consultation.