If your engagement ends before the wedding, Virginia has rules about who owns the ring

By Columnist Kerry Dougherty, The Virginian-Pilot – 12/30/2016

Maybe it’s the eggnog. Those once-ubiquitous “He went to Jared” TV ads. Or the endless loops of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” playing at the mall.

(Yes, I’m aware that seasonal spoilsports call the flirtatious, Academy Award-winning duet a “rape” song. Let’s ignore their politically correct gibberish, shall we?)

Whatever the reason, December may be the most popular month for popping the question.

In fact, a widely reported analysis of Facebook relationship status changes several years ago showed that the most popular day of the year for folks to go from “single” to “engaged” was Christmas Eve. That was followed by Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve, with Valentine’s Day coming in fourth.

If true, that means lots of engagement rings were sold this month.

Chances are, those sparklers weren’t cheap, either. For years, some in the jewelry industry have been urging the lovesick to spend as much as three months’ gross salary on a diamond.

Ridiculous. Yet, it must be working. The wedding planning website WeddingStats.org says the average cost of an engagement ring in 2015 was a whopping $5,273.

No doubt some spent much, much more.

But there’s good news for those who blew a bundle on those rings: If your December romance wilts before the wedding bells chime, that ring is yours.

In Virginia, at least.

I’m guessing that when Ethan Dockendorf presented his girlfriend with a 2-carat stunner in the summer of 2012, he never imagined that the readers of The Virginian-Pilot, the ABA Journal or anyone who peruses court documents for fun would someday know not only the value of the rock – but also that the betrothal ended badly.

That’s what happens when romance ends up in court.

On Dec. 15, the Virginia Supreme Court confirmed that the purchaser of an engagement ring gets to keep it when marriage plans go bust because, in Virginia, those diamonds are considered “conditional” gifts.

An opinion penned by the court’s newest member, Justice Stephen R. McCullough, upheld a lower court opinion that said Dockendorf should get the ring he gave away four years earlier:

“On August 25, 2012, Ethan L. Dockendorf proposed to Julia V. McGrath. She accepted. He offered her a two-carat engagement ring worth approximately $26,000. In September 2013, after the relationship deteriorated, he broke off the engagement. The parties never married. Love yielded to litigation and Dockendorf filed an action … seeking, among other things, the return of the ring. In response, McGrath demurred to Dockendorf’s complaint. … The court found that the ring was a conditional gift. … The court ordered McGrath to either return the ring within 30 days or it would enter judgment in the amount of $26,000 for Dockendorf.”

McGrath had appealed the lower court decision, arguing that her former fiance was prohibited from suing for the ring by Virginia’s “heart balm” law that was passed by the General Assembly almost 50 years ago. That statute blocks many legal actions against those who get cold feet prior to a wedding.

Virginia Beach attorney Steve Emmert highlighted the engagement ring case on his Virginia Appellate News & Analysis blog. When I spoke with him Thursday, he said that prior to the 1968 law, jilted lovers in Virginia – usually women – were able to sue for damages resulting from their heartache and embarrassment.

The heart balm statute prohibited such lawsuits. It does not protect engagement rings, as it turns out.

That’s very good news for anyone who was caught up in the magic of the season and gave their beloved – for now, anyway – expensive engagement bling.