Many estate and inheritance disputes revolve around the will of a deceased loved one. Estate and inheritance disputes may also relate to gifts or transfers of money or property made during a person’s lifetime. Lifetime transfers or gifts are commonly referred to as inter vivos transfers or gifts in courts of law. If someone with an interest in the estate of a deceased person that has made a lifetime transfer or gift to you disapproves of that transfer or gift, the situation could result in a lawsuit.
A person who receives a lifetime transfer or gift can be sued and put in a position where they must prove they are entitled to keep the money or property that was given to them. Alternatively, when money or property comes into the possession of an estate, but that money or property was already given to a person before the deceased person passed away, the original recipient of the money or property may need to prove that the money or property belongs to them. In these and other scenarios, proving that money or property given during life was an inter vivos gift can be a difficult task given the relevant legal standards in New Jersey.
The burden of proving an inter vivos gift is on the party who claims there was a gift. The New Jersey Supreme Court has said that the recipient of a gift:
[M]ust show by explicit and convincing evidence that the [giver] intended to make a present gift and unmistakably intended to relinquish permanently the ownership of the subject gift. Only that understanding and absolute abnegation of power will make the alleged gift enforceable. If the judicial mind is left in doubt or uncertainty as to exactly what the status of the transaction was, the [recipient] must be deemed to have failed in the discharge of his burden and the claim of gift must be rejected.
In re Dodge, 50 N.J. 192 (1967). In order to prove that an inter vivos gift was made, the Appellate Division has made clear that the recipient of the gift must prove that (1) the giver intended to make a gift; (2) the property or money that was gifted was delivered; and (3) the giver gave up ownership and control over the gift. Czoch v. Freeman, 317 N.J. Super. 273 (App. Div. 1999).
The Czoch case is a good example of how a dispute over money transferred by someone during their life can result in a dispute over the transfer or gift after that person’s death. In Czoch, the estate of a deceased person sought to recover money given away by the deceased person during her lifetime.
The deceased person’s daughter and granddaughter received pay checks, Social Security checks and tax refund checks from the deceased person over a period of twenty years. The daughter and granddaughter were given various instructions as to what to do with the money, including cash the check and bring back the money, or deposit the money in the deceased person’s account, or keep the money for themselves. The only evidence offered to prove that the deceased person intended to give the money as gifts was unsupported witness testimony. The court concluded that there was insufficient evidence to demonstrate the deceased person intended to give the money as gifts, and the money had to be returned to the estate.
Whether or not the court in Czoch was correct that the deceased person did not intend the lifetime transfers to be gifts, the high burden of proof prevented the court from reaching a different conclusion.
The Law Office of Bart J. Klein, located in Maplewood, New Jersey, counsels clients regarding inheritance, estate and probate disputes, including disputes regarding lifetime transfers, gifts and inter vivos transfers. We appear in courts throughout New Jersey and welcome you to contact us for further information.
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