THE CASE OF THE UNFULFILLED PROMISE
Jared, age ninety, had a very valuable violin collection consisting of 10 violins, cases and bows. He was frail and was helped by a niece Sally, who was an excellent violinist. Just prior to making a new will, Jared told his niece that he was going to give her the violin collection. “It’s yours,” he said, adding that he would temporarily hold on to the collection for safekeeping. That same day he also sent Sally a letter in which he said, “I give you my violin collection, and when I die, it will be yours.”
Jared died four weeks later. In his will, which did not refer to the violins, he left his entire estate to his two children. Sally brought suit against the estate to have the violin collection declared her property.
Sally testified at the trial about the help she had given her uncle over a period of fifteen years. She produced the letter her uncle had sent her and recalled their many conversations during which her uncle had promised to give her the violins. There was additional testimony that Jared’s children had never even picked up a violin and had been estranged from their father for years.
The Arguments at Trial
Sally’s attorney argued that the collection belonged to Sally because Jared had gifted the violins to her during his lifetime and that there was symbolic delivery. He further argued that Jared’s keeping possession of the violins was solely to protect them and in no way invalidated the gift. He also argued that to deprive Sally of the collection that her uncle obviously wanted to give her would be unfair.
The children’s attorney argued that the will was validly executed after the letter was sent and promises made orally or in writing do not constitute valid gifts. They further argued that actual and not symbolic delivery is an essential requirement for a gift to be deemed valid.
Questions to Discuss
- Who has the stronger argument, Sally or Jared’s children? Why?
- If you were the jury hearing this case, for whom would you decide? Why?
- Should considerations of fairness and the intentions of the person making the will take precedence over a validly executed will?
- What problems do you think could arise if oral or written promises were considered under the circumstances of this case?