When is a sweetheart gift really a "gift" or just words worth less than the paper they are written on?

Rasmussen v. Rasmussen, 2005 WL 2138710 (Fla. 2d DCA September 7, 2005) (Trial Court Reversed)

Although this is a divorce case, the issue of when and "if" a gift actually transfers property rights comes up quite often in the probate-litigation context. So this case should be of interest to trusts and estates planners as well as litigators.

Former major league ball player Dennis L. Rasmussen signed the following note, dated June 10, 1999, which bore the signature and stamp of a notary public (but without a jurat or acknowledgment):

I, Dennis Rasmussen, in sound mind and body, wish to have my wife, Jan S. Rasmussen, receive all property, including personall [sic], in the event of death or separation. I hereby give up any right of any joint or individually held monetary [sic] and property due to any of the above circumstances. This agreement will remain in effect until an [sic] mutually agreed upon revision replaces the above. (Emphasis added.)

Not unreasonably, Mrs. Rasmussen tried to hold him to this "gift" after filing for divorce. Mr. Rasmussen apparently had a change of heart and argued he didn't really mean to give her anything. Hillsborough County Judge Manuel A. Lopez didn't buy this argument, and ruled against him. Unfortunately for the soon-to-be "ex" Mrs. Rasmussen, on appeal the Second District Court of Appeal reversed the trial judge, basing its ruling on the following excellent summary of the current state of the law in Florida with respect to when a gift effectively passes title to property:

We have previously outlined the principles used for determining whether there has been a valid gift: It is well settled that to effectively pass title by gift there must be a surrender of dominion over the res, coupled with the intent then and there to pass title. In other words, there must be an immediate vesting of some interest in the donee, complete and irrevocable. If the donor withholds divestiture it is not a legal gift. A delivery which does not confer the present right to reduce the res into possession of the donee is insufficient. . . .

Under these principles, the note of June 6, 1999, did not make a valid gift of the husband's property to the wife. According to the terms of the note, the wife's rights would come into existence only "in the event of death or separation." The note thus provided for a conditional, future transfer of the property; it did not give the wife a present right to the property. Since the note was ineffective as a gift of the husband's property to the wife, the trial court erred in treating the assets in question as marital assets subject to equitable distribution.

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