The expected path a couple may take is usually courtship, engagement and ultimately a marriage; but what happens if the engagement is broken off prior to the marriage happening? Which party in that situation is the rightful owner of the engagement ring, an item often bearing significant financial value?
How the Courts would answer this question was not crystal clear until recent years. In 2016, The Supreme Court of Virginia in McGrath v. Dockendorf, 793 S.E.2d 336 (Va. 2016), finally took a good look at this question. The Court’s opinion provides the following short background:
- “On August 25, 2012, Ethan L. Dockendorf proposed to Julia V. McGrath. She accepted. He offered her a two-carat engagement ring worth approximately $26,000. In September 2013, after the relationship deteriorated, he broke off the engagement. The parties never married. Love yielded to litigation, and Dockendorf filed an action in detinue seeking, among other things, the return of the ring.”
The Court analyzed a great deal of history of how these cases have been handled over the past century and how “breach of the promise to marry” cases were similar and different than the question of which party owns the engagement ring. The Court opined that:
- “[T]here is a difference between a promise to marry, which, even though it is unenforceable, is hardly illegal or against public policy, and an action for recovery of damages for breach of a promise to marry, which is barred by Code § 8.01-220. The gift of the ring was not conditioned on the ability to maintain an action for breach of promise to marry. That would have been impermissible. Instead, the gift of the ring, under settled Virginia law, was a conditional gift.”
In other words, the Court found that a person accepts an engagement ring with the condition that the marriage will happen (both that they intend to marry the other person and that the other person intends to marry them). The Court went on to find that “[w]hen the condition upon which the gift was made did not occur, Dockendorf could institute an action in detinue to recover the ring or its value.”
Because the ring was given as a conditional gift in contemplation of marriage, and the marriage did not occur, the ring (or value of), was ordered to be returned to the husband.
If you are engaged or are thinking about becoming engaged to be married now is the time to talk through the “what ifs” if the engagement (or marriage) is not as successful as you expect it to be. Schedule an appointment online with one of our attorneys or call us at (540) 944-4343 to find a time to sit down with one of our attorneys.