So your fiancée broke off your engagement because she fell in love with your best friend and decided she likes him better. On top of that, she won’t return the $20,000 engagement ring you bought her. So the marriage is off, your finances are in shambles, and your (former) best friend is at least partially to blame because he asked your former fiancée on a date when he knew she was already engaged. What legal rights do you have?
Engagements are normally a happy and exciting time for the couple, but not all engagements result in marriage. Circumstances change, sparks fade, and life intervenes. Breakups are never easy, but introducing valuable personal property into the mix complicates things further. Only the most vindictive and bitter ex-boyfriends and girlfriends would demand the return of small gifts exchanged during a relationship, but attitudes change significantly when a $20,000 or $50,000 diamond is at stake. Who gets the ring if the engagement is called off? And what liability does the best friend have for seducing your fiancée?
Disgruntled grooms left standing ringless at the altar have come up with a number of creative legal theories over the years. Most are no longer viable in today’s day and age, but in most cases, you can still get that ring back.
Alienation of Affections
In the old days, a man could sue any person who seduced his wife and broke up his marriage. A tort called “alienation of affections” required a showing that (1) the plaintiff enjoyed actual love and affection in his marriage; (2) that love and affection was lost; (3) the defendant wrongfully caused that loss of love and affection; and (4) resulting damages. In other words, if your wife stopped loving you because Romeo swept her off her feet while knowing her to be married to you, you could sue the bastard. In 1968, however, Virginia enacted Code § 8.01-220, which currently provides in subsection (A):
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 upon which a cause of action arose or occurred on or after June 28, 1968.
We’re well past 1968, so forget about trying to sue the person who interfered with your marriage by alienating your wife’s affections for you. In any event, in our example, we’re talking about a broken engagement, not a marriage, so this tort would not have applied anyway.
Breach of Promise to Marry
Can you sue your former fiancée for violating her prior agreement to marry you? Virginia formerly permitted such suits, but no longer. If your fiancée changed her mind and decided not to marry you despite earlier promises, you used to be able to sue her for “loss of comfort,” hurt feelings, emotional anguish, humiliation, and wounded pride. If you were “marrying up” into a prestigious and wealthy family, you could even demand expectation damages to put you in the financial and social position you would have attained had the marriage gone forward as planned. The action for “breach of promise to marry” is the second action barred by § 8.01-220, so forget it.
The tort of criminal conversation allowed a husband to sue a person who had engaged in sexual relations with his wife. Eventually, the tort was extended to permit wives to also file suit. You had to be married, though, so in our example, you wouldn’t be able to sue your best friend for making a move on your fiancée since you weren’t married yet. In any event, criminal conversation is now barred by § 8.01-220.
You used to be able to sue for seduction, too. To win, you had to prove (1) enticement, persuasion, or solicitation of some nature, or a promise of marriage; (2) chastity of the female at the time of the alleged seduction; and (3) sexual intercourse as a result of the enticement. The woman didn’t need to be married for the tort of seduction to arise. Nevertheless, seduction has not been a viable cause of action in Virginia since 1974. (See Va. Code § 8.01-220(B)).
Detinue Action to Recover Conditional Gift
A “detinue” lawsuit is one for the recovery of specific personal property. In a detinue action, you can get a court order for return of the property, an award of damages caused by the temporary deprivation of your possession of the property, and damages in the amount of the property’s value if the item can’t be returned. To succeed in a detinue action, a plaintiff must establish (1) ownership of the thing sought to be recovered; (2) that the plaintiff has the right to its immediate possession; (3) that the item is capable of identification; (4) the property has value, and (5) the defendant has (or had) possession of the property.
This is the ticket if you want to get that engagement ring back. If you presented your girlfriend with a ring as a gift conditioned on the occurrence of her marrying you, and that condition is never satisfied, then the ring still belongs to you and you can file a detinue action to get it back. Unlike the other antiquated causes of action discussed in this post, the law of conditional gifts remains perfectly viable today. In a case decided just last month (McGrath v. Dockendorf (Va. Sup. Ct. Dec. 15, 2016)), the Supreme Court of Virginia held that § 8.01-220 does not affect detinue actions rooted in a theory of conditional gift, even if the condition is that the parties get married. (In that case, the argument was made–unsuccessfully–that an action to recover an engagement ring is, in effect, an action for breach of promise to marry because without a breached promise to marry there would be no action to recover the ring.)
A word of advice, though: don’t propose on Valentine’s Day, or on your significant other’s birthday. Doing so would allow him or her to argue (should the engagement break off one day) that the ring was actually a birthday present or Valentine’s Day gift and not a gift on condition of marriage. Unconditional gifts, once they leave your possession, are gone for good.