The answer to who keeps the engagement ring after a breakup depends on when the breakup occurred.
Breakups that Occur Prior to the Marriage. – Typically, the “giver” of the ring owns it.
In a recent Supreme Court of Virginia case, McGrath v. Dockendorf, the court has provided some much-needed clarity as to who owns the engagement ring upon a breakup prior to marriage. The court held that, under these circumstances, the giver of the ring owns the ring. The rational is that ownership of the ring is based on the law of conditional gifts and not the Virginia Heart Balm Act. 793 S.E.2d 336 (Va. 2016).
In Virginia, under Pretlow v. Pretlow, it had been long-settled law that when the proposer gives an engagement ring, this gift was a “conditional gift”. 14 S.E.2d 381, 388 (Va. 1941). In other words, the gift of the ring is conditioned upon the marriage. Thus, if the marriage does not occur, the receiver of the ring must return the ring.
Despite this, some lawyers argued that the Heart Balm Act codified at Virginia Code §8.01-220, should bar recovery of the ring. The Heart Balm Act forbids an ex-fiancé from suing his prior betrothed based on the breakup of the engagement. Courts in Virginia were split on whether or not this law would apply to the return of engagement rings. With the McGrath decision, all courts of Virginia recognize that the Heart Balm Act does not affect a “conditional gift” claim upon the parties’ breakup prior to the marriage.
Break-ups that Occur After the Marriage. – Typically, the “receiver” of the ring owns it.
If the marriage has taken place, Virginia courts will determine the ownership of the engagement ring in the same fashion the courts determine ownership of all property after a divorce. When dividing property, the courts must classify property as separate (meaning that it is not subject to the court’s division upon a divorce), marital (meaning the property is subject to division upon a divorce), or hybrid. One justification for courts to classify property as an individual’s separate property is if that individual received the property prior to marriage. Since the transfer of an engagement ring occurs prior to the marriage courts will classify the ring as the separate property of the receiver, as was the outcome in the circuit court case Hale v. Hale. 20 Va. Cir. 230 (Va Cir. 1990).
Despite the cases referenced above, each case is different and other facts could change the legal analysis. For example, if the parties altered the engagement ring during the marriage, then one might claim that a “new” ring was made and is marital property of both parties. An example of this could be an extensive remounting of the stones of the original ring. In Price v. Price, the court found that the alteration to the engagement ring created a new ring which was considered marital property, thus owned by both parties. 355 S.E.2d 905 (Va. App. 1987).