Does Virginia’s heart balm statute prohibit an action to recover an engagement ring?

Does Virginia’s heart balm statute prohibit an action to recover an engagement ring?

Not in the case of McGrath v. Dockendorf, 793 S.E.2d 336 (2016), where the Supreme Court of Virginia ruled that a detinue action to recover a two carat diamond engagement ring worth $26,000 was not barred by Virginia’s heart balm statute, Virginia Code Section 8.01-220.  While the case does not directly concern bankruptcy, it does address property rights upon engagement.

Ethan L. Dockendorf gave a two carat engagement ring worth $26,000 to Julia V. McGrath with his promise to marry her.  After an engagement of more than a year, Dockendorf called off the marriage and demanded the return of the engagement ring from McGrath.  Dockendorf sued McGrath in detinue under Virginia Code Section 8.01-114 in the Circuit Court of Fairfax County for the return of the ring or its value.  A detinue action is an action recognized in Virginia for the return of property unlawfully withheld from the plaintiff.  The Circuit Court ruled in Dockendorf’s favor on the theory that the engagement ring was a conditional gift.  McGrath was ordered to return the ring within 30 days or suffer a money judgment for $26,000.

McGrath appealed to the Supreme Court of Virginia, arguing that Virginia’s heart balm statute barred a recovery for an engagement ring.  At one time, a fiancé could sue his or her betrothed for improperly breaking a promise to marry, Grubb v. Suit, 32 Gratt. 203 (1879), and recover financial and emotional damages.  In 1968, Virginia enacted a heart balm statute, Section 8.01-220, abolishing actions for a wrongful breach of a promise to marry.  In addition, Virginia has recognized a right to recover an engagement ring, Pretlow v. Pretlow, 177 Va. 524, 14 S.E.2d 381 (1941), the subject of another blawg post here, if the donee terminates the engagement.  McGrath argued that an action for a return of the engagement ring is essentially an action for a breach of a promise to marry, the type of action abolished by Virginia’s heart balm statute.  In response, Dockendorf argued that the heart balm statute is limited to a nullification of the common-law action for breach of promise to marry and not for the return of the gift of a ring.

The Supreme Court of Virginia first recognized the standard of review, which was one of de novo statutory construction.  The court then distinguished an action in detinue for the return of specific personal property from an action for a breach of a promise to marry for the recovery of damages for the humiliation and loss of a broken engagement.  The court noted that a majority of other state courts have ruled that a heart balm statute does not prohibit an action for the return of an engagement ring. Finally, the court affirmed its assumption that the General Assembly of Virginia is aware of the court’s rulings when enacting legislation, and did not specifically abolish an action for the return of an engagement ring when enacting Virginia’s heart balm statute.

The Supreme Court of Virginia distinguished its decision in McDermott v. Reynolds, 260 Va. 98, 530 S.E.2d 902 (2000) on which McGrath relied, a civil action for alienation of affections barred by Virginia Code §8.01-220 as the same type of action for damages for a particular type of conduct, disguised an intentional infliction of emotional distress.  In an interested footnote #3, the court noted “The question of fault may (or may not) bear upon the viability of a detinue action, but it is not relevant to our construction of the heart balm statute”  Apparently, the fault of Dockendorf in breaking off the engagement was not an issue raised at trial or on appeal, which issue might have obtained a different outcome for McGrath.

You should discuss with your Virginia divorce lawyer, or Glen Allen divorce lawyer James H. Wilson, Jr., whether you may be entitled to the return of, or to retain, an engagement ring.

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