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Gruen v. Gruen

    Brief Fact Summary. Plaintiff claims ownership of a valuable painting through a birthday letter from his father which stated that the father intended to give the painting to the Plaintiff, but would like to keep the painting until his death.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. As long as there is evidence presented that establishes the intent of a donor to make a present and irrevocable transfer of the property in question, there is some transfer of interest, and the gift is effective immediately.

    Facts. Plaintiff received a letter on his birthday from his father, decedent, which stated that the decedent was giving a painting called “Schloss Kammer am Attersee II,” by Gustav Klimt, to the Plaintiff, but that decedent desired to retain possession of the painting during his lifetime. Plaintiff did not seek to gain possession of the painting during the decedent’s life, respecting his father’s wishes. Decedent passed away on February 14, 1980. Plaintiff then requested the painting from Defendant, Plaintiff’s stepmother, who refused to give the painting to Plaintiff. Plaintiff then instituted this action. The trial court found for the Defendant. The intermediate appellate court found for the Plaintiff, and remanded the case to the trial court which subsequently awarded $2,500,000 to Plaintiff as damages for the value of the painting plus interest. Defendant appealed directly to the Court of Appeals.

    Issue. May an inter vivos gift of a chattel be made which reserves a life estate in the donor, where the donee never has physical possession of the chattel?

    Held. Yes. Judgment affirmed.
    The Defendant argued that either the purported gift was testamentary in nature and that the requirements of testamentary gifts were not met, or that an inter vivos gift may not be made where a life estate is reserved by the donee. Also, that the Plaintiff’s lack of possession of the painting does not establish the requirement for an inter vivos gift. The trial court initially agreed with the Defendant and held that the Plaintiff had failed to establish any of the elements of an inter vivos gift and that an inter vivos gift is not valid where a life estate is claimed by the donee. This Court found that an inter vivos gift required the donor to make an irrevocable present transfer of ownership. Also, that if the intention is to make a testamentary disposition effective only at one’s death, then the law requires the donor to do so through a will.
    The Court held that the facts of the case conclusively showed that the father clearly expressed his desire to transfer a remainder interest to the Plaintiff, reserving in himself a life estate. There was other evidence subsequent to the birthday letter which indicated the father’s understanding that the Plaintiff did own the painting. The Court found that inter vivos gifts of real property which reserved a life estate in the donor were valid, as were gifts of intangibles such as stocks. Thus, the Court declined to rule that chattels could not be subject to the same rule, which validates this transfer of ownership to Plaintiff.
    “As long as the evidence establishes an intent to make a present and irrevocable transfer of title or right to ownership, there is a present transfer of some interest and the gift is effective immediately.” Thus, when the father clearly expressed his intent, during his lifetime, to transfer the ownership of the painting to the Plaintiff, the gift was complete.
    The Defendant urged the Court to require physical transfer of possession to complete the gift. In this case the Court found that, insofar as the Plaintiff never received a possessory right until his father’s death, it would be illogical to require the Plaintiff to show that he did gain possession of the painting.

    Discussion. In cases such as this, where the intention of the purported donor cannot be established (because of death) through actual testimony of the donor, the courts will seek to find other evidence which establishes the intent of the donor. Courts will seek to follow the intent of the donor and honor such intent whenever possible.


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