In 1986, a court convened to decide if the son of the owner of a particular piece of artwork belonged to the departed man’s son, or the departed man’s wife. While such a case would seem simple and/or open and shut, both parties staked compelling claims to what they both believed was their property. Equally confusing is the existence, or lack thereof, of any kind of ownership in writing.
Michael Gruen, the plaintiff, claimed to be the rightful owner of a painting originally owned by his late father. To this end, an action was commenced attempting to declare himself the rightful owner. Legally, in order for such an ownership to be valid, the intent of giving a gift must be documented by the original owner. While delivery can either be in person or a shipment, as long as it gets to the intended donee. The plaintiff’s step-mother, Kemija Gruen, staked a claim to what the plaintiff claimed belonged to him. While Gruen asserted that his father gifted it to him in a letter, the letter itself was absent from the evidence, as allegedly Michael Gruen’s father wished it to be destroyed. Ultimately, however, two more letters existed that also claimed Michael to be the rightful owner of the painting upon his father’s passing.
Gruen’s stepmother, Kemija, claimed that the painting belonged to her on account of the father not specifically leaving the artwork to his son in a formal will, and was “testamentary” in nature. Initially, the lower court ruled in favor of Kemija, finding that Michael Gruen had nothing formal in writing stating that the artwork was his. Furthermore, it was found that the father retaining possession of the gift prior to his passing invalidated its definition as a “gift”. Ultimately, this was reversed by the appellate division, which found that any possession of the late father was technically part of his estate, regardless of what assets were specified or not. Upon this ruling, Kemija Gruen appealed to the United States Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court ending up upholding the decision of the plaintiff, as a delivery was ultimately made to the plaintiff, and a personal delivery would have been impractical, as the original owner was deceased. The exchange and acceptance of such a gift was enough to deem the painting a legal gift.
In order for anything to legally be a gift, regardless of who claims it, it must be given by the original owner, and must be accepted by the intended donee. While things can become murky with legal jargon, a gift ultimately boils down to ownership and intent. The evidence of two other letters supported his claim, while also supporting the idea that his father wanted to retain ownership until his passing. By definition, a gift needs to meet the requirement of a doner strictly stating who they are giving it to. While his step-mother’s attorney attempted to claim the gift as invalid, the painting did not have to be specified in the original owner’s will.
Photo by Mark Fletcher-Brown on Unsplash