NFL star and 2006 first overall draft pick Mario Williams has filed suit against his former fiancée seeking recovery of the 10.04 carat diamond engagement ring he gave her in February 2012. Williams claims that his ex, Erin Marzouki, never intended to marry him, and that she had promised to return the ring if the engagement ended. The two-time Pro Bowler brings this claim under the “conditional gift rule”—the idea that a gift is not truly given until something else happens.
The thinking here is that the engagement ring is given “on the condition” that the marriage occurs. If the parties marry, the gift is completed and the ring becomes the receiver’s separate property. If the parties don’t marry, at least in Texas, the court would look at the reasons why the marriage didn’t happen. In Virginia, however, the court is not likely to get past the first part of the question.
Virginia Code § 8.01-220 was enacted in 1968. Called the “Heart Balm Act,” it eliminated alienation of affection and breach of promise to marry as valid civil actions. In other words, spouses-to-be cannot sue each other civilly if the marriage falls through. The courts have extended this to the question of the engagement ring. Seeking recovery of the ring, or value equivalent to the ring, would involve seeking damages incurred from a breach of a promise to marry.
That is not to say that the courts never return the engagement ring. In a 1999 divorce case, the Fairfax Circuit Court ordered the return of an engagement ring as part of its equitable distribution of property. The court noted, however, that in that particular case the ring should be returned based on the wife’s promise to return the ring in the event of separation. These types of situations, however, are the exception that proves the rule: absent some outside promise or agreement, engagement rings are unconditional gifts in Virginia—meaning our divorce courts do not have the power to order their return.
Former spouses are not without options. If the parties enter into a property settlement agreement and agree the ring shall be returned, then the court will honor such an arrangement.
The treatment of engagement rings can be one of the trickiest aspects of separation and divorce cases. The family lawyers of Livesay & Myers, P.C., are experienced in dealing with this and many other property issues in divorce, and assist clients throughout Northern Virginia. Contact us to schedule a consultation today.