This is a typical question raised when a couple breaks up prior to getting married in Virginia. The answer depends on whether the court determines that the engagement ring was a “conditional” gift; a gift that was given on the condition that the parties marry. The majority of courts (including Virginia) now classify engagement rings as conditional gifts, and award the engagement ring to the giver in broken engagement cases.

A recent Virginia Supreme Court case found in favor of a plaintiff who had given an engagement ring worth $26,000 to his fiancé. The former fiancé (defendant) argued that she was entitled to keep the ring because there is no right to sue for breach of a promise to marry in Virginia. The plaintiff, however, successfully argued that he was not seeking the return of the ring based on a breach of a promise, but that he was entitled to the ring (or it’s value), because the ring was a conditional gift given with the expectation that the marriage would take place. If that condition is not met, for whatever reason, the giver has the right to get the gift back.  

As long as the ring was not given for any other reason, such as a birthday, or Christmas present, it may be classified as a conditional gift. So, in a broken engagement, if the condition of marriage is not met, the ring must be returned to the giver. This a “no fault” law, meaning that it does not matter who is responsible for the broken engagement.

Who Do the Engagement Rings Belong to After the Marriage Takes Place?

Courts in Virginia have an easier time in determining who owns the engagement ring after the parties officially marry.  In a divorce situation, Virginia courts will divide all property into categories of (1) marital; (2) separate; and (3) hybrid or part marital and part separate in order to distribute it. Since Virginia considers one category of “separate property” to be “all property, real and personal, acquired by one party before the marriage,” it naturally follows that the engagement ring is the recipient’s separate property. Given the legal reasoning noted above regarding the conditional gift of an engagement ring prior to the wedding – that it is given conditioned upon the completion of the marriage ceremony – once the parties are married, the condition is fulfilled, and the ring is then recognized as the recipient’s separate and sole property.

How Are the Wedding Rings Usually Distributed?

Marital property is generally defined as (1) all property titled in the names of both parties, (2) that part of any property that is specifically classified as marital under the statute (Va. Code §20-107.3) and (3) all other property acquired by each party during the marriage which is not separate property.

Given that definition, wedding rings are typically going to be classified as “marital property” under Virginia law because they were acquired by the parties during the marriage.  The court may distribute marital property to the parties based on a number of factors that the court must review and analyze. These factors include, but are not limited to (1) the contributions, monetary and nonmonetary of each party to the well-being of the family; (2) the contributions, monetary and nonmonetary of each party to the acquisition, care and maintenance of marital property; (3) the duration of the marriage; (4) the circumstances and factors which contributed to the dissolution of the marriage, etcetera.  Depending on how the court views those factors, the monetary value of the parties’ assets are typically divided between the parties in percentages. So, for example, the wife may be awarded 60% percent with husband getting 40% of the value of the assets. If one party wants the actual rings, their value may be offset by the distribution of another asset to the other party.