Law School Case Brief
Brousseau v. Brousseau - 2007 VT 77, 182 Vt. 533, 927 A.2d 773
In defining donative intent regarding real property, courts have traditionally taken one of two approaches. The first approach treats donative intent as the intent to transfer legal title, established by the mere act of placing property into joint title without receiving consideration in return. The second approach, and the one favored by the Vermont Supreme Court, construes donative intent as the intent to confer immediate, beneficial ownership in the property at issue such that the mere joint titling of property without consideration does not conclusively establish intent to gift the property.
In 1965, parents purchased a property and included their daughter as a joint tenant with rights of survivorship on the deed to avoid probate upon their deaths. In 1980, the daughter moved to the property to care for her elderly parents. The father died in September of 1983 and in March 1984, while the mother was still alive, the daughter signed a deed conveying title to the property to herself and her own daughter (granddaughter) as joint tenants with rights of survivorship. Both parties understood that this was not a gift but an estate planning tool. The mother died three months after the 1984 deed was signed. In 2005, the daughter decided to to sell the property to help her meet the monthly expenses for the assisted-living facility she lived in. The granddaughter, however refused to quitclaim her interest in the property or permit the daughter to receive the entire proceeds from the sale of the property. The daughter petitioned the superior court to: (1) declare her the sole legal and equitable owner of the property, (2) order the granddaughter to comply with the sale of the property; (3) declare that the daughter is entitled to all proceeds from the sale of the property; and (4) enjoin the granddaughter from making any claims against the proceeds of the sale. The granddaughter filed a motion for summary judgment. The superior court granted the motion of the granddaughter, concluding that the daughter's voluntary act in titling the property in both her and her daughter's names, as joint tenants with rights of survivorship conclusively demonstrated her intent to make an inter vivos gift of a one-half interest in the property. The daughter appealed.
Was the act of voluntarily titling the property as joint tenants in effect an inter vivos donation?
The grant of summary judgment was reversed. The Supreme Court of Vermont held that the trial court ignored the daughter's attestation that she did not intend to convey a present beneficial interest to her daughter when she signed the 1984 deed and that the granddaughter was aware that the property was titled to her as joint tenant solely in an effort to avoid probate if the daughter still owned the house at the time of her death. Furthermore, by deciding that the granddaughter was entitled to judgment as a matter of law, despite her mother's attestation, the trial court effectively created a conclusive presumption that title alone established an inter vivos gift. Doing so was contrary to legal precedent, particularly in light of the fact that the granddaughter presented no evidence to support her position. The case was remanded for further proceedings regarding the granddaughter's precise interest in the property, if there was any.
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