Engagement and Wedding Rings in Family Law Proceedings
One common issue raised in family law matters is who has the right to keep
the engagement and/or wedding rings? The question can arise both prior
to the marriage even happening, or during a divorce proceeding as part
of the tallying of marital and separate property, and the answer varies
Prior to the Marriage Taking Place.
An engagement ring is traditionally given by one person to another in consideration
of an agreement to marry. But when the wedding is called off prior to
the "big day," who gets to keep the ring? State law decides
Conditional Gift Theory.
In most states, including Maryland, an engagement ring is not considered
just a gift from one to-be spouse to another, but a
conditional gift. A conditional gift is given to the recipient with the expectation
that some agreed-upon future event or action will occur. If the condition
is not met, then the giver has the right to get the gift back. In the
case of the engagement ring, if the engagement is broken before the wedding
happens, the condition (i.e., the marriage taking place) has not occurred and the majority of courts
award the engagement ring back to the giver.
Applying the "conditional gift" theory to marriage scenarios,
in 1941, the Supreme Court of Virginia held that if a gift is given based
on a promise of marriage, that gift or its value can be recovered if the
recipient breaks off the marriage.[i]
Hart Balm Act.
In 1968, however, the Virginia General Assembly enacted legislation commonly
referred to as the Hart Balm Act, which abolishes the common law right
of action for breach of promise to marry.[ii] The majority of states and the District of Columbia have passed similar Acts.[iii] Plainly, the legislation bars a party from suing his or her former fiancée
if the engagement is broken.
Jurisdictions around the Commonwealth have interpreted the Virginia Hart
Balm Act in two very distinct ways. Consequently, these opposing views
have directly impacted how some courts view engagement rings for purposes
of assigning ownership.
One interpretation is that the Hart Balm Act precludes
any civil suit based on a broken engagement. This view holds that an attempt
to reclaim the engagement ring or its value after a failed engagement
is considered nothing more than an action for damages and is therefore
The second view in Virginia – also considered the majority view –
interprets the Hart Balm Act in conjunction with the Conditional Gift
Theory. Under this analysis, the Act only precludes actions for money
damages resulting from the broken promise, such as humiliation or distress,
but does not bar actions to recover property given for the engagement
or its value.[v]
Recently following the majority view, in November 2014, the Loudoun County
Circuit Court held again that the Hart Balm Act was not intended to bar
the return of engagement gifts, but rather only to bar actions for damages
suffered because of the breach of the promise to marry.[vi] The Act therefore does not affect the rights of each party regarding the
gifts that they exchange.[vii] Because an engagement ring is given in contemplation of marriage, it is
by nature conditional, and can be reclaimed by the donor if the engagement
promise is breached.[viii]
Despite the majority view, the rule is certainly not yet settled in Virginia
and courts are lacking in uniformity. The issue was recently brought front-and-center
when former Washington Redskins wide-receiver, Laveranues Coles, faced
this question in Fairfax County Circuit Court.[ix] Coles' case involves a 5.6-carat diamond engagement ring, appraised
at $240,000, given to his long-time girlfriend when he proposed and she
accepted. When the parties called off their engagement, Coles asked for
the ring back, his former-fiancée refused, and the parties found
themselves in court. The trial court ruled in favor of Coles, ordering
the ring's return, but the fiancée has appealed and the matter
is now before the Virginia Court of Appeals. A decision from the Court
of Appeals could give continuity to the law applied to this issue around
The Virginia Supreme Court has not opined on the engagement ring issue
since the enactment of the Hart Balm Act, but could have that chance depending
on the outcome of Coles' case in the Court of Appeals.
After the Marriage Takes Place.
Virginia courts have had less difficulty assigning ownership of the engagement
ring in situations where the marriage has taken place, and the spouses
are going through a divorce and the accompanying equitable distribution process.
Typically, "separate property" is all property, real and personal,
acquired by one party 1)
before the marriage; 2) during the marriage by gift from a third party or by
inheritance; 3) during the marriage in exchange for or from the proceeds
of the sale of separate property, if the newly acquired property is maintained
as separate property; and 4) as income received from separate property
during the marriage as long as said income is not attributable to the
personal effort of either party.[x] Conversely, "marital property" is 1) property titled in the
names of both parties (with some exceptions); and 2) property acquired
during the marriage that is not separate property.[xi]
Once the parties are married, it follows that the engagement ring is the
recipient's separate property – it was acquired by one party
before the marriage. Considering the policy reasons noted above regarding ownership
of an engagement ring prior to the wedding – it is given conditionally
upon the completion of the act of marriage – once the parties say
"I do," the condition is met and the ring is considered the
recipient's separate property.[xii] This is the case even if the marriage doesn't last very long.[xiii]
What About Wedding Rings?
Wedding rings given or exchanged at the wedding are likely going to be
considered marital property under Virginia Code Section 20-107.3(A)(1)(ii)
and (2)(iii).[xiv] This is the case even if the rings are exchanged prior to the officiant
actually pronouncing the parties as married.[xv]
There may be additional factors that affect the ownership of an engagement
gift such as if the ring is a family heirloom or if there was any change
in the value of the engagement ring because of marital assets.[xvi]
An attorney familiar with Virginia family law can be very useful in proving
guidance in any of these circumstances, and the family law attorneys at
ShounBach are experienced in dealing with a wide range of divorce-related
property issues such as these. Call us at (703) 222-3333 to schedule a
Pretlow v. Pretlow, 14 S.E.2d 381, 388 (Va. 1941) (internal citations omitted) ("If
an intended husband make a present, after the treaty of marriage has been
negotiated, to his intended wife, and the inducement for the gift is the
fact of her promise to marry him, if she break off the marriage, he may
recover from her the value of such present.").
[ii] VA Code § 8.01-220(A).
See Ruth Sarah Lee,
A Legal Analysis of Romantic Gifts 18 & n.94 (Harvard Law Sch. John M. Olin Center for Law, Economics,
and Business Fellows' Discussion Paper Series, Discussion Paper No.
available at http://www.law.harvard.edu/programs/olin_center/fellows_papers/pdf/Lee%2043.pdf.
See, e.g.,Georgalas v. Kilgore, (Trial Order) No. 01706-TF, 2006 WL 6636360 (Va. Cir. Ct. Dec. 22, 2006)
(Cause of action to recover an engagement ring or its value "simply
seeks damages incurred as a result of a 'breach of promise to marry'
and is barred pursuant to Virginia Code § 8.01-220.);
Holmburg v. Ferrell, No. CL05–98, 2005 WL 4827412, at *1 (Va. Cir. Ct. Dec. 5, 2005)
(Plaintiff's cause of action for the return of a car he gave to the
defendant on the condition that the defendant would marry him is a suit
for "breach of promise to marry but disguised  as a conditional
gift case," and is therefore contrary to public policy according
to the Hart Balm legislation.").
See, e.g.,Harrison v. Yarbrough, No. 109240, 1992 WL 884620, at *2 (Va. Cir. Ct. April 6, 1992).
Peter v. Langley, No. 89241, 2014 WL 6855383, at *2 (Va. Cir. Ct. Nov. 6, 2014).
Hicks v. Jordan, No. CL09–4244, 2010 WL 7372597, at *1 (Va. Cir. Ct. June 6, 2010).
See also Branscome v. Schaus, No. CH05000110-00, 2006 WL 1331144, at *1 (Va. Cir. Ct. Mar. 21, 2006)
(The "doctrine of a gift conditioned on marriage is equally applicable
to engagement rings, personal property, and real estate.") (internal
[ix] Tom Jackman,
Ex-Redskin Laveranues Coles wants $240K engagement ring back, could make Va. Law, Wash. Post, Dec. 12, 2014,
available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/local/wp/2014/12/12/ex-redskin-laveranues-coles-wants-240k-engagement-ring-back-could-make-va-law/.
[x] VA Code § 20-107.3(A)(1).
[xi] VA Code § 20-107.3(A)(2).
See Carden v.
Carden, No. 132377, 1995 WL 1055801, *3 (Va.Cir.Ct. Mar. 6, 1995) ("No exception
is made for pre-marital gifts made by the future spouse.");
Chavez v. Chavez, No. CL10-6528, 2011 WL 5566770 (Va. Cir. Ct. Oct. 14, 2011) ("The
marriage occurred here and the condition subsequent was thus satisfied.
The engagement ring was the plaintiff's separate property.").
Hale v. Hale, No. CH89000091–00, 1990 WL 10030557, at *5 (Va. Cir. Ct. June 26,
1990) (Even in marriages that are relatively short in length, without
evidence to the contrary, an engagement ring is the separate property
of the recipient.).
See Chavez, 2011 WL 5566770 ("The plaintiff testified the defendant gave the
wedding ring to her at the wedding. It is therefore marital property.").
Neale v. Utz, 75 Va. 480 (1881) ("If it is contended that [the recipient] received
the wedding ring in the ceremony before the officiant pronounced them
husband and wife, the law generally does not regard fractions of a day
unless justice requires it.").
See Price v. Price, 355 S.E.2d 905, 911 (Va. App. 1987) (The engagement ring, originally
considered separate property, became hybrid property "by remounting
stones from two rings: an engagement ring given to [the recipient] prior
to the parties' marriage and another given to [the recipient] by [the
spouse] after their marriage.").