By Kurt R. Mattson
It’s not uncommon for a personal representative or executor to seek help in settling an estate.
After probate’s been opened with the court, establishing date of death values for all of the decedent's assets is the next step. Any personal effects like jewelry, artwork, and collectibles must be appraised by a qualified appraiser. A recent case questioned whether certain assets were even part of the decedent’s estate.
In Pennsylvania, the children of a decedent appealed the decision of a trial court that found some of their father’s assets were inter vivos gifts and not part of his estate. Along with two antique cars, they contested their father’s collection of coins. The daughter challenged the trial court’s finding that the collection of coins didn’t constitute an inter vivos gift.
The father executed a will providing that if his wife predeceased him, the estate was to be divided into two equal shares for the benefit of his two children. The father's wife passed in 2008. He died testate on in 2013, and his will was admitted to probate. The father's estate filed a first and final account and issued a schedule of distribution. Both parties filed objections, disputing the ownership of the antique cars and the coin collection.
In 2011, the father established a trust account, a living trust agreement, and signed a letter stating he was giving the daughter his coin collection because he no longer wished to maintain them in his home. In 2012, the daughter and her husband went to the father's home to remove the coin collection. The father was visibly upset and when the father's caretaker arrived later that day, he was still upset, saying, "They're gone."
The trial court ordered that the coin collection was the property of the estate.
On appeal, Judge Lillian Harris Ransom wrote in her Superior Court opinion that a valid inter vivos gift requires donative intent, delivery, and acceptance. There must be evidence of an intention to make a gift accompanied by delivery—either actual or constructive—of a nature sufficient not only to divest the donor of all dominion over the property, the judge explained, but to invest the donee with complete control. She went on to say that all of the circumstances must be considered in determining whether a gift was made, and that donative intent can be inferred from the relationship between the donor and donee.
Judge Ransom went on to state that the burden of proving an inter vivos gift is placed initially on the putative donee, who must first show a prima facie case through clear, direct, and convincing evidence.
Judge Ransom went on to state that the burden of proving an inter vivos gift is placed initially on the putative donee, who must first show a prima facie case through clear, direct, and convincing evidence. Once a prima facie case is established, a presumption of the validity of the gift arises, and the burden shifts to the contestant to show by clear and convincing evidence that the property was not given as an inter vivos gift.
The son argued that the daughter failed to show that the father possessed the donative intent to make the gift. The daughter claimed that the court erred in finding that she’d failed to prove by clear and convincing evidence that the father made an inter vivos gift of the coin collection to her. According to the daughter, the letter signed by the father was a clear and convincing expression of donative intent, and, although delivery of the coins didn’t happen for a few months after this, there was no evidence in the record suggesting that the father had revoked his intent prior to delivery.
However, the trial court concluded that:
- Evidence from multiple witnesses showed that the father was primarily concerned about the safety of the coins;
- The letter relied upon by the daughter to establish donative intent was ambiguous; and
- The father's behavior at delivery was evidence of revocation: he was upset on the day of delivery, as well as his statement to his caretaker that the coins were gone.
Again, the trial court found the language of the letter ambiguous. That judge relied upon precedent that held that a decedent's statement that she was giving rings to her sister to keep was ambiguous and equivocal—the word give was as consistent with a bailment as it was with a gift. Based on this reasoning, the trial court in this case held that the word “give” was indeed ambiguous and without more, the daughter couldn’t meet her burden of clear and convincing evidence.
The daughter argued that the testimony of the trust officer who drafted the letter established the father's intent. However, the trust officer also acknowledged that the father didn’t used the word "gift" in their conversation and that he was concerned with the security of the coins because of the number of caretakers coming in and out of his home. That concern, Judge Ranson opined, was consistent with a bailment rather than a gift. The daughter failed to show donative intent prior to delivery.
The daughter failed to prove by clear and convincing evidence that the coins constituted an inter vivos gift. In re Estate of Hutchens, 168 A.3d 295 (Pa. Super. 2017).