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Eventually, the practice was criticized as being outdated and subject to abuse by blackmail, and as a consequence, Virginia enacted the 1968 “heart balm” statute specifically prohibiting actions for alienation of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.