Virginia Engagements: Final Return of the Engagement Ring (Case)?

Remember when I asked whether you can get the return of your engagement ring if the marriage falls through in Virginia?  Well, it’s no longer a crapshoot.  You can get the return of the engagement ring or its value.

In McGrath v. Dockendorf, Record No.160262 (Va. Ct. Appeals 2016), the question presented was whether Virginia’s Heart Balm Statute (§ 8.01-220) applies to bar return of an engagement ring given in contemplation of a marriage that fell through.

The Heart Balm Statute bars actions for alienation of affection, breach of promise to marry, and criminal conversation. So does an action for return of an engagement ring constitute an action for breach of promise to marry?

The Virginia Court of Appeals answered this question in the negative.  It held that the breach of promise to marry cases were broad actions allowing for traditional tort monetary damages for things like embarrassment, the perception of being damaged goods, and lost economic security.  It held that an action to get back an engagement ring was just an action to get back a gift conditioned on marriage.  That both involve a broken promise to marry is irrelevant.

The Virginia Court of Appeals further held that the old case of Pretlow v. Pretlow¸177 Va. 524 (1941), allowed for the return of an engagement ring or its value, and had the Virginia General Assembly wanted to overrule that case law permitting the return of an engagement ring it would have been far more direct than just barring actions for “breach of promise to marry.”

The logic behind this decision is worth a brief discussion.

First, the court basically concludes that an old generic action for breach of promise to marry is different from an action for return of an engagement ring as a result of a breach of promise to marry because the scope of the latter action is so small as to make it different from the old generic action for breach of promise to marry.

But didn’t litigants in the old breach of promise to marry cases complain that they were out thousands because the other party had received a ring, a car, or other gifts?  In other words, didn’t the scope of damages in those cases necessarily account for damages for at least the value of an unreturned gift?  Isn’t this a very good reason to broadly apply the Heart Balm Statute?

Second, and similarly, the court basically concludes that an old generic action for breach of promise to marry is different from an action for return of an engagement ring because of Pretlow.  Well, what does Pretlow actually say?

In Pretlow, the Virginia Supreme Court’s primary concern was determining whether the trial court had inherent equity jurisdiction to annul a marriage predicated on fraud.  Id. at 527-549. The court ended its long discussion over that issue with a brief one over whether the husband could recover for some of the debts he paid on behalf of his then prospective wife.  Id. at 554-555.  The court held that he could recover on the following basis:

“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.” Id. at 555 (quoting Lumsden v. Arbaugh, 207 Mo. App. 561, 227 S.W. 868)

You should notice from this quote the fact that the court mentioned a promise to marry and a breaking off of the promise to marry.  You should further note that the court made no reference to a conditional gift or to the conditional gift law that was available at the time.  Indeed, it says nothing about the availability of the return of the ring.  Instead, it used the most generic language possible, and that language was primarily about the breaking off of a promise to marry.  As such, Pretlow effectively treated engagement ring cases like any other breach of promise to marry case.  And, when the Virginia Heart Balm Statue abolished actions for breach of promise to marry, it overruled Pretlow.  Thus, Virginians could no longer seek return of their engagement rings when the engagement fails.

Anyway, that would have been my argument.  In the end, you ring givers can get your rings back a little bit more confidently these days!

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