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 accordingly.
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 this issue.
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 not allowed.[iv]
- 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 Commonwealth.
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 consultation today.
[i] 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).
[iii] 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. 43, 2012), available at http://www.law.harvard.edu/programs/olin_center/fellows_papers/pdf/Lee%2043.pdf.
[iv] 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.").
[v] See, e.g.,Harrison v. Yarbrough, No. 109240, 1992 WL 884620, at *2 (Va. Cir. Ct. April 6, 1992).
[vi] Peter v. Langley, No. 89241, 2014 WL 6855383, at *2 (Va. Cir. Ct. Nov. 6, 2014).
[viii] 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 citations omitted).
[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).
[xii] 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.").
[xiii] 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.).
[xiv] See Chavez, 2011 WL 5566770 ("The plaintiff testified the defendant gave the wedding ring to her at the wedding. It is therefore marital property.").
[xv] Id. (citing 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.").
[xvi] 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.").