January 2017

Can You Sue for the Ring When the Engagement is Called Off?

An unfortunate but common question we come across at PJI Law is: Who gets the engagement ring if the couple breaks off their engagement? Virginia law on the issue has historically been muddled, but we are closer to an answer now that the Virginia Supreme Court has weighed in on the matter in McGrath v. Dockendorf, a case that first arose in Fairfax County.

Originally, Virginia courts allowed a jilted fiancé(e) to sue the other for breach of promise to marry. Damages could include loss of comfort, injury to feelings, wounded pride, and loss of economic security. But in reality, the cases became primarily a function of humiliation and public entertainment.

Eventually, the practice was criticized as being outdated and subject to abuse by blackmail, and as a consequence, Virginia enacted the 1968 “heart balm” statute specifically prohibiting actions for alienation of affection, breach of promise to marry, and criminal conversion. Va. Code Ann. § 8.01-220 (1968).

"Take this ring to mean that I want to spend the rest of my life in litigation with you"
“Take this ring to mean that I want to spend the rest of my life in litigation with you.”                                                            

Since then, courts have been divided as to whether a party may sue for the return of the engagement ring and diamond. Some courts have found that the ring is part of the promise to marry and that the heart balm statute bars all suits for any action related to that promise. The majority of courts, however, have ruled that a suit for the ring is separate from the breakdown of the engagement because it only seeks recovery of property.

The Virginia Supreme Court has now ruled once and for all that Virginia courts may hear suits for the return of engagement rings because they are actions focused solely on the return of property.

Interestingly, the Court also implied that it does not matter if the person who gave the ring is the one who broke off the engagement, which is a contrast with the new Virginia law we recently covered allowing courts to consider the cause of divorce in determining spousal support. Although the facts will vary from case to case, in the McGrath case, Mr. Dockendorf proposed to Ms. McGrath, gave her an engagement ring, then broke off the engagement himself, brought the suit for the return of the ring, and the court ruled in his favor.

This is an example of why it is important to know your rights and responsibilities when entering into a life-changing event such as an engagement. The attorneys at PJI Law are happy to discuss these, and many other relevant issues including premarital agreements / prenups, with you if you are entering an engagement or marriage.

List of New Virginia Laws Enacted in 2016

We don’t practice law passively here at PJI Law – we pride ourselves on keeping up with the latest laws in order to gain as big of an advantage as possible in our clients’ cases. And as we welcome the year 2017, we take a look back at some of the most interesting laws enacted in Virginia in the year 2016. If you wish to read more about new laws, click here to visit a summary of some of the legislation put together by the Virginia General Assembly’s Division of Legislative Services.

But for a quicker read, here are some of the news laws that most caught our attention (please note that these are incomplete summaries):

1. Marriage: You now have to be 18 years old or emancipated in order to get married. Previously, you could marry at 16 with the consent or a parent and even earlier in case of pregnancy.

2. Asset Forfeiture: The law makes it more difficult for the government to convince the court that property is subject to forfeiture in civil asset forfeiture cases.

3. Dogs: Hide your chickens – rather than being killed or removed to another state, dogs who injure or kill poultry now face milder consequences, such as microchipping or transfer to another owner.

4. Smoking: Smoking in a car with a minor who is eight years old or younger now earns you a $100 fine.

5. Public Schools: Effective in the fall of 2018, the law requires an average of 100 minutes of physical activity per week for students in grades kindergarten through five. This compares with the current 150 minutes required for students in grades six through twelve.

New 2016 Virginia Laws include slight deregulation of ABC liquor stores.
New 2016 Virginia Laws include slight deregulation of ABC liquor stores.

6. Car Doors: Virginia legislators actually deemed it necessary to pass a law that says that you cannot open your car door on the side of moving traffic unless it is “reasonably safe to do so”.

7. Medical Services: If you will be receiving a medical service/procedure at a hospital, and if you request at least three days before the service an estimate of the cost for which you will be responsible, the hospital is required by law to give you the estimate.

8. Social Media: No college or university may require a student to disclose login information for the student’s social media accounts. An exception is made for campus police officers performing official duties.

9. Protective Orders: The penalty for an individual possessing a firearm while subject to a protective order for family abuse has been elevated from a Class 1 misdemeanor to a Class 6 felony.

10. Guardianship: No guardian may unreasonably restrict an incapacitated person’s interaction with others with whom the person has an established relationship.

11. Alcohol: As we slowly move away from nineteenth-century liquor laws, ABC liquor stores may open at noon on Sundays, which is an hour earlier than before, as well as on New Year’s Day.

12. Hunting: The new law makes it specifically legal to hunt wild animals with slingshots where shooting is permitted. Exceptions are made for deer, bear, elk, and turkey.

13. Fantasy Sports: Virginia now requires the registration of fantasy contest operators to register with the government and makes them subject to various regulations.

If you have questions on how these or other Virginia laws may impact you, we stand ready to assist you.

A Change in Virginia Law Makes Spousal Support Even More Contentious

You may know it by the terms “alimony” or “maintenance”, but you have almost certainly heard that spousal support can be a major source of contention in divorce. Indeed in any divorce case in Virginia, the court will, upon the request of a party, determine whether or not a spouse is entitled to spousal support, including the nature, amount and duration of such support.

There are certain factors that the court must consider in awarding spousal support, and if your lawyer does not continually keep abreast of the latest legislative changes on the topic, it is likely that you may not be aware of the changes that were made effective July 1, 2016. Pursuant to these changes, in determining spousal support awards, courts must now consider “the circumstances and factors that contributed to the dissolution” of a marriage, “specifically including any ground for divorce”.

The change in the law could impact spousal support orders by thousands of dollars - in either direction.
The change in the law could impact spousal support orders by thousands of dollars – in either direction. 

Previously, although the court could consider such factors and any fault grounds in distributing marital assets, there was no clear guidance from the law that the court could also consider the same factors in determining spousal support. This led to many spousal support decisions being made with a complete blind eye to the causes of the marital breakup. Our legislators decided that this needs to change, and as such, a few months ago Virginia Code section 20-107.1(E)(13) was amended so as to provide the court with the power to essentially punish what it considers to be non-innocent parties, or “bad actors”, through a spousal support decision.

Although only a few words in the law changed, the impact can be very significant. We at PJI Law have already identified a number of our current cases that might be impacted by this law, and have adapted our legal strategy accordingly, to the benefit and protection of our clients. This demonstrates the importance of lawyers closely following changes in the law, and explains why our attorneys make it a priority to stay updated and analyze our cases accordingly.

Does Your Will Encourage Lawsuits Between Your Family Members?

Many people in the Northern Virginia area are familiar with the concept of a Last Will and Testament (“Will”). Generally speaking, a Will is a document that dictates how and to whom your property will be distributed upon your death. However, have you stopped to wonder what would happen if those who survive you (family, friends, and those who claim are friends) feel snubbed by the distribution and try to contest and challenge the Will? That’s when things get tricky, and at PJI Law we help our clients implement strategies to avoid pitfalls such as will contests.

Hope for the best, plan for the worst. If you fail to plan, a will contest could cost your estate significant legal fees, even if your true wishes prevail. It will also cause hardship for your loved ones and beneficiaries because your estate cannot be distributed during a will contest. Furthermore, you risk a judge making or changing some of your most personal and important decisions.

Poor drafting can invite Will contests at a most difficult time for your family.
Poor drafting can invite Will contests at a most difficult    time for your family.                                                                

The good news is, if you plan properly, there are ways to deter a will contest. One simple way is to include a provision whereby, if someone challenges your Will, he or she will forfeit that portion of the estate. Another way is to specifically identify who is not inheriting under your Will and explain that they are not receiving a share because they are provided for in another manner (for example through a life insurance policy). Another option is to create a revocable living trust that will hold the property, avoid probate, and appoint a trustee to act on your behalf to divide your estate. And last but not least, there are certain formalities that you can follow when executing your Will that will establish a presumption that it is valid.

When establishing or revising your estate plan, these are only some of the issues the attorneys at PJI Law address to ensure you are protected now and in the future. If you would like to discuss your estate plan with us, please feel free to call us at (703) 865-6100 to schedule a consultation. We look forward to helping you!