Do I Need to Return the Engagement Ring?

By | November 9, 2012
return engagement ring virginia family law

UPDATE as of January 20, 2017:

As noted below, for quite some time, the answer to the question “do I need to return the engagement ring” or “can I get my engagement ring back” was tricky for Northern Virginia divorce lawyers to answer.  Recently, however, the Supreme Court of Virginia provided some much needed direction in McGrath v. Dockendorf (VLW 016-092).  In that case, Mr. Dockendorf gave his bride-to-be, Ms. McGrath, a $26,000.00 engagement ring.  The couple was engaged for about a year and had a child together.  For reasons unknown, Mr. Dockendorf subsequently determined the marriage could not go forward, called off the engagement, and an argument over the return of the engagement ring ensued.

In years past, an action to recover an engagement ring was likened to an action for breach of promise to marry, which were prohibited by Virginia’s Heart Balm statute (a rather antiquated statue). The Fairfax County Circuit Court in the Dockendorf case, however, made clear that an independent civil action – called an Action in Detinue – could be brought to determine whether an engagement ring was a conditional gift and, if it was, whether the necessary conditions were met or waived.  Such actions, the circuit court found, were wholly different than actions for breaches of promise to marry.  In Mr. Dockendorf’s case, the court found his ring was a conditional gift and ordered it be returned.  On appeal, the Supreme Court of Virginia agreed.  Both opinions are interesting and well worth reading on their own.

Though each case is determined on its own facts and merits, it now appears there is a clear path to getting an engagement ring back when things don’t go as planned.

If you’ve got questions about the information above, please feel free to drop me a line.  Jason A. Weis, Esquire – Curran Moher Weis P.C. – – 10300 Eaton Place, Suite 520, Fairfax, VA 22030 – 571-328-5020.


Do I need to return the engagement ring?  Engagement rings are a good example of how personal property issues can sometimes become quite complicated in a divorce.

Long, long ago (okay, back in 1941), the Virginia Supreme Court looked at the issue of “who gets the ring” and found that a husband could recover the value of his engagement ring if his soon-to-be wife broke off the parties’ engagement.

“[I]f an intended husband make a present, after the treaty of marriage had 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…”

This case (Pretlow v. Pretlow) espouses the “conditional gift” theory.  That is, the engagement ring is a gift conditioned on a marriage actually taking place.  If the condition is not met – if the marriage does not occur – the gift is forfeited and the ring must be returned.  Many states, including Maryland, view engagement rings as conditional gifts.

Virginia, of course, must be different.  In 1968, the Virginia General Assembly enacted Virginia Code § 8.01-220, which prevents individuals from suing each other for “alienation of affection” and “breach of a promise to marry.”  Subsequently, several Virginia circuit courts (including one as recently as 2006) have found that because a husband cannot sue for breach of a promise to marry, he similarly cannot sue for damages relating to that breach, including the value of the engagement ring.

Though in 1999 the Fairfax County Circuit Court ordered an engagement ring be returned where it was “subject to an unusual conditional gift in that the wife received it not on the condition of marriage but upon promise to return it in the event of separation,” the weight of current authority suggests that absent some other condition, promise or agreement, an engagement ring is an unconditional gift.  Once given, it isn’t coming back (by court order).

Notwithstanding the law, there are often good and fair reasons for returning the “3-month’s salary” ring and many of my clients find their rings either returned or preserved for their children.

If you’ve got questions about the information above, please feel free to drop me a line.  Jason A. Weis, Esquire – Curran Moher Weis P.C. – – 10300 Eaton Place, Suite 520, Fairfax, VA 22030 – 571-328-5020.


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