Property I, Pages 229–234

Gruen v. Gruen

Court of Appeals of New York, 1986


Plaintiff's father purchased a painting by a noted Austrian painter for $8,000 in 1959. Four years later, while plaintiff was in undergraduate at Harvard, his father wrote him a letter saying that he was giving him the painting for his birthday, but that he wished to retain the possession of it for his lifetime. Plaintiff later destroyed it on instructions from his father to avoid paying inheritance taxes. Two subsequent letters described what had happened however. Plaintiff never took possession of the painting. It remained in his father's possession until his death, at which point plaintiff requested possession and commenced this action when such was refused.

Procedural History:

Trial court found that plaintiff had failed to establish any of the elements of an inter vivos gift and that an attempt by a donor to retain a present possessory life estate in a chattel invalidated a purported gift of it. The Appellate Division held that a valid gift may be made reserving a life estate and, finding the elements of a gift established in this case, it reversed and remitted the matter for a determination of value. Such a value was determined to be $2,500,000 plus interest. Defendant appeals directly here.


  • Can a valid inter vivos gift of a chattel be made where the donor has reserved a life estate in the chattel and the donee never has had physical possession of it before the donor's death?

  • If it may, was plaintiff's father's gift to plaintiff a valid inter vivos gift?


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    To make a valid inter vivos gift there must exist the 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.

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    The proponent of a gift has the burden of proving each of these elements by clear and convincing evidence.

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    As long as the evidence establishes an intent to make a present and irrevocable transfer of title or the right of ownership, there is a present transfer of some interest and the gift is effective immediately.


Defendant transferred future rights to the painting as an inter vivos gift, which is legally distinct from a testamentary gift. As the present rights were not transferred, requiring the decedent to give up possessory rights at the time would be illogical.


Plaintiff's father's gift to plaintiff was a valid inter vivos gift. Affirmed.