Marriage is a legally recognized relationship between individuals. Accordingly, each state has a comprehensive set of laws that govern the formation and dissolution of a marriage. So, if there are laws regulating marriages, are there laws governing engagements? This blog discusses the legal issues related to wedding engagements and their cancellation.
How Does the Law Recognize an Engagement?
Although couples customarily get engaged before their wedding, there is no legal requirement to do so. Unlike marriages, engagements are not a legally recognized relationship. Otherwise, Las Vegas wedding chapels would be missing out on a heap of revenue.
Instead, the law treats engagements as a promise to marry. Some states, including Virginia, had laws granting individuals damages resulting from breaching their promise to marry. However, the Virginia statute that allowed lawsuits for broken engagements was repealed in 1977–much to the collective relief of anyone who leaped into an engagement heart-first with eyes closed.
The Return of the Ring
Although the abolition of state broken engagement laws let many college undergrads escape long-distance relationships with their high school sweethearts, most states currently recognize a person’s right to recover an engagement ring upon repudiation of their fiancé’s promise to marry.
In 2016, the Virginia Supreme Court held that an engagement ring is a “conditional gift.” The Court reasoned that “[in] seeking to recover an engagement ring, the plaintiff is not asking for damages because of a broken heart or a mortified spirit; rather, he is asking for the return of things which he bestowed with an attached condition precedent, a condition which was never met.” McGrath v. Dockendorf, 292 Va. 834, 839 (2016).
Therefore, while Virginia law no longer recognized the right to sue a fiancé for ending an engagement, lawsuits to recover an engagement ring or its monetary value are still valid. Thus, if you know someone who ended their engagement after learning that they “deserved better” while studying abroad at the Universitat de Barcelona for 10 pass-fail units in Liberal Arts, you might advise them to either return that diamond ring or else reimburse their ex-fiancé for the 3 months’ worth of Uber earnings they spent on it.
However, an engagement ring is not considered to be a marital asset subject to division at divorce. Any property acquired before marriage is regarded as the spouse’s separate property. Because the condition of marriage was fulfilled, a spouse is not required to return the engagement ring upon divorce.
Estoppel In the Name of Love
The emotional and financial sting associated with canceling a wedding has a better chance of garnering sympathy in court if it occurs closer to the wedding date. If wedding preparations are sufficiently advanced, a scorned lover may be entitled to recover money under the doctrine of promissory estoppel.
Promissory estoppel is an action in equity that allows a promisee to recover equitable compensation for detrimentally relying on the reasonable promise of another. Thus, an icy-foot fiancé could potentially be liable for costs incurred for wedding planner services, vendor deposits, and certain outrageously expensive wardrobe items. However, the promisee’s detrimental reliance on a promise must be considered reasonable to a similarly situated person of ordinary prudence.
Therefore, a person who only discovered the concept of “postage costs” after mailing more than a hundred elaborate “save the date” cards and wedding invitations to “friends and family” (much of whom had ultimately RSVP’d by text message) likely learned a nonrefundable $300 life-lesson the hard way.
Call a Skilled Fairfax Divorce Attorney
If you and your significant other deferred the decision to separate until after the wedding, you should consult the professional legal services of an experienced Fairfax divorce attorney. At Malinowski Hubbard, PLLC, we have years of experience handling various family law matters, including divorces. We are dedicated to advocating for your best interests to ensure you get a fair resolution to your case.
To schedule an initial consultation with one of our Fairfax divorce attorneys, call us at (703) 935-4222 or contact us online today.