Gruen v. Gruen

68 N.Y.2d 48, 505 N.Y.S.2d 849, 496 N.E.2d 869 (1986)



A valid inter vivos gift in a possession may be made reserving a life estate in the possession as long as the elements of the gift -- intent on the part of the donor to make a present transfer; delivery of the gift, either actual or constructive to the donee; and acceptance by the donee -- are established by clear and convincing evidence.


Plaintiff commenced this action seeking a declaration that he was the rightful owner of a Klimt painting that he alleged his father, now deceased, gave to him as a birthday present. Plaintiff conceded that he has never had possession of the painting but asserted that his father made a valid gift of the title in 1963 reserving a life estate for himself but retaining possession of the painting until the father died in 1980. Defendant, plaintiff's stepmother, has possession of the painting and refused plaintiff's requests that she turn it over to him. She argued that the purported gift was testamentary in nature and invalid insofar as the formalities of a will were not met or, alternatively, that a donor may not make a valid inter vivos gift of a chattel and retain a life estate with a complete right of possession. Following a seven-day nonjury trial, the Special Term found that plaintiff had failed to establish any of the elements of an inter vivos gift and that in any event an attempt by a donor to retain a present possessory life estate in a chattel invalidated a purported gift of it. The Appellate Division reversed, holding that a valid gift may be made reserving a life estate and, finding the elements of a gift had been established by the son, remitted the matter for a determination of value of the painting. Defendant stepmother sought further review to the Court of Appeals of New York.


Did a donor's attempt to retain a present possessory life estate in a valuable painting invalidate a purported gift of the painting to a donor's son?




The Court of Appeals affirmed the Appellate Division's holding that the son had established by clear and convincing evidence that his father had made a valid inter vivos gift of a painting's title while reserving a life estate for himself and retaining possession of the painting. 

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