An engagement ring is the ultimate symbol of love and commitment. But what happens if the notion of love and commitment goes awry, and a couple chooses to end their engagement and call off the wedding? There are a lot of issues to consider when it comes to the bands that adorn the left ring finger and a dissolving relationship.
In Virginia, courts overseeing a divorce look at property that is acquired before a couple weds and after. But an engagement ring is complicated as it’s a gift given as a consideration of marriage. The Supreme Court of Virginia recently ruled on the issue in case that could prove to be groundbreaking.
The case, McGrath v. Dockendorf (VLW 016-092), outlined the plight of a man who proposed to his girlfriend with a $26,000 engagement ring. A year later, after they had a child, and were still engaged but had not yet married, the couple broke up. The man wanted the engagement ring back.
Virginia courts in the past have relied on the Hart Balm statute. 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.
Until now, the Virginia courts have been 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.
Others view the Hart Balm Act 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.
The recent Dockendorf case, however, may have brought more uniformity to the law in Virginia. It showed that an independent civil action can be brought to determine whether an engagement ring was a conditional gift. A lower court had court found that in the Dockendorf case, the ring was a conditional gift – and ordered it be returned. The state Supreme Court agreed on appeal.
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