Boy meets girl. Boy proposes, with $26,000 ring in hand. Girl accepts. Relationship deteriorates. Boy breaks off engagement. Girl refuses to return ring. Boy sues. This is the point, in the words of the Virginia Supreme Court in McGrath v. Dockendorf, when “love yielded to litigation.”
This case involves a remarkably common dispute—over who gets the ring when an engagement is called off. But this one also requires a trip through family law history to sort out the relationship between gifts given in contemplation of marriage and the so-called heart balm causes of action for the emotional harm of broken engagements, adultery, and other family disruptions. When sued for the ring, Julia McGrath argued that the claim was barred by a statute abolishing heart balm laws in Virginia. Does she have to return the ring?
Engagement Ring Law: A Primer
How should we characterize the act of giving an engagement ring? The law of engagement return flows from our description of the giving of a ring. There are different possible characterizations.
Perhaps the ring is “consideration” (the giving of something in exchange for a promise) that creates a contract. But what type of contract? Neither party is obligated to marry just because a ring has been exchanged. But maybe the donor has bought an option—the right to marry the donee. If this characterization prevails, the ring should be returned only if the donee is the one to call off the nuptials because she has eliminated the option paid for by the ring. But if the donor calls it off, then he has simply chosen not to exercise the option, but that doesn’t mean he gets his money back.
But for this option to be enforceable, we would, under standard contract law, require that the donee give something in exchange. (Mere naked promises are sometimes kind, but not enforceable.) So that description doesn’t seem quite right.
Gift law is a better fit for this situation than contract law. When a person gifts something to another person without getting something in return, we usually characterize the transfer as a gift. Once the transfer takes place—a legal concept called “delivery”—the gift is complete and cannot be undone at the whim of the donor. But a gift arises from the intent of the donor—his or her intent to transfer something to another person without getting anything in return. And is that really what’s in the mind of a person who gives an engagement ring? Doesn’t the donor give the ring with the expectation that marriage will follow?
The Restatement of Restitution, a treatise on the rules that should govern payment for goods or services, advocates the unconditional gift approach. The Restatement views the ring as simply a gift given with the hope that marriage will follow. That means that if even if the marriage does not take place, the gift stands—no matter who calls the marriage off. Only if the engagement ring was induced by fraudulent behavior could it be demanded back if no marriage took place.
Most courts have not adopted this approach, however. They have opted for a “conditional gift” approach. An engagement is a gift subject to a condition—that marriage between the parties occurs. The gift only “vests”, or becomes complete, when the condition is satisfied by a marriage. Conversely, when the condition fails and the marriage doesn’t happen, the ring must be returned.
The concept of a conditional gift in this context is relatively simple. But courts in different jurisdictions have added yet another wrinkle to this approach by asking why the condition failed. If it was the fault of the donee, then she has to return the ring—she caused the condition to fail and would be unjustly enriched by keeping the ring. But if the broken engagement was the fault of the donor, then he can’t seek a remedy for the failed condition. But more recent cases—and the better reasoned ones—tend to apply a no-fault rule. If the condition fails, the ring goes back because the donor did not intend it to be kept under those circumstances. But a strict count of states would reveal that a substantial number, maybe even a majority, still look at fault.
McGrath v. Dockendorf: Engagement Ring Law with a Twist
In Virginia, where this engagement occurred and failed, an engagement ring is a conditional gift. It must be returned if an engagement is terminated. So McGrath should have given back the ring. But she defended against Dockendorf’s suit by claiming that his suit dusted up the ashes of heart balm, which the state had abolished decades earlier. So now, a word about heart balm. . . .
Under the early American common law, many states recognized causes of action for the damage caused by various kinds of heartache. The most significant of the group was the action for breach of promise to marry. This action arose from the idea that an engagement (not just the ring, but the agreement to marry) was a kind of contract. A person who broke this contract by calling off the wedding could be sued for breach of promise. In practice, this claim was only brought by women, who often suffered irreparable damage from the broken engagement. The woman might have slept with the men before marriage, on the assumption that they would be married soon enough. The stigma alone could be irreparable, especially if the premarital sex led to a pregnancy. Or the engagement might have sent the message that she was off the marriage market and her stock would suffer if she tried to return, perhaps after her prime years if the engagement had dragged on for a bit. It was also commonly understood that women had more delicate feelings than men and that the humiliation and trauma of a broken engagement was deserving of a remedy.
These lawsuits occasionally resulted in very large damage awards, news of which fueled concerns about gold-digging and fraud. Many states also recognized other heart balm actions, including criminal conversation (having sex with another man’s wife) or alienation of affections (behaving in a way that caused a married person to lose affection for his or her spouse). The heart balm actions were supposed to protect middle-class honor and respectability, especially for women. And along with honor and respectability came a reinforced vision of women as weak and in need of the law’s protection. But over time a different image took hold—women as gold-diggers and temptresses, using their sexuality to attract unsuspecting men and then emptying their pockets when the men wizened up.
The balance seemed to shift in the 1930s, when courts became less sympathetic to heart balm plaintiffs and legislatures began to abolish these common-law causes of action. The 1970s and 1980s were home to another round of abolitions. Breach of promise suits were the ones most resoundingly eliminated. Some states, while taking aim at breach of promise to marry suits, swept more broadly and got rid of all heart balm actions. Today, breach of promise to marry survives nowhere as a cause of action; other heart balm actions still find a few friendly homes, mostly in the mid-Atlantic states and below.
Modern Heart Balm?
McGrath’s defense in this case is that she cannot be sued for return of the engagement ring because Dockendorf’s lawsuit amounts to a “breach of promise to marry” suit, which Virginia abolished in 1968. That statute provides: “Notwithstanding any other provision of law to the contrary, no civil action shall lie or be maintained in this Commonwealth for alienation of affection, breach of promise to marry, or criminal conversation. . . .” According to McGrath, the only reason the ring might need to be returned is because there was a breach of the promise to marry; thus, a suit on those facts would run afoul of the legislative prohibition.
The Virginia Supreme Court rejected this argument for a variety of good reasons. First, when the 1968 law was passed, there was a judicial opinion on the books holding that a husband who makes a gift to his prospective wife because of her promise to marry “can recover from her the value of the present” if the engagement is broken. The Virginia legislature is, by the usual canons of statutory construction, presumed to have known the law at the time it acted and, apparently, decided to let this rule stand even while abolishing true heart-balm actions. Second, the text of the statute speaks expressly about three causes of action, but says nothing about the law of conditional gifts. Third, an action for return of a tangible item like a ring does not raise the same concerns as ostensibly raised by traditional heart balm actions—high damage awards fueled by sympathetic factfinders, the uncertainty of placing a dollar amount on a broken heart, the incentive for gold-digging and trapping unwitting dupes in doomed engagements. If the plaintiff wins, he just gets back the ring or its easily-assessed value. That’s it.
This ruling is consistent with rulings in other states where the same question been raised. The consensus seems to be that suits to recover gifts given in contemplation of marriage can survive even where heart balm actions have not. Although this might seem only to protect men—who are the primary givers of engagement rings and thus the ones most likely to be seeking their return—cases like this leave open the possibility that parties can seek reimbursement for expenses that have been incurred in planning the ill-fated wedding. And, as tradition seems still to hold sway over the modern wedding, these expenses are more likely to be incurred by the bride or her family.
For couples who trying to avoid litigation, here’s my advice: exchange mutually valuable symbols of engagement (this has the added benefit of eliminating the sexist undertones of engagement rings as a symbol of ownership or possession), keep wedding costs down, and focus more on the marriage itself.