Koerner v. Nielsen, 2014 IL App (1st) considers the parameters of an inter vivos gift (a gift made during a giver’s lifetime) as they pertain to the question of who owns a dog after the break-up of a romantic relationship.
The plaintiff gave her then-boyfriend (the defendant) a dog (a Stig) for Christmas. About fourteen months later, the parties’ broke up and the defendant moved out, taking the dog with him. Plaintiff filed a replevin suit to get the dog back.
A two-day bench trial culminated in a judgment for the defendant. Plaintiff appealed.
Held: Affirmed. Plaintiff made a gift of the dog to the defendant, defendant accepted the gift, and plaintiff failed to show that the gift was revoked.
Under Illinois personal property and gift law, where a defendant asserts that he owns something based on a gift from a plaintiff, he must prove, by clear and convincing evidence, donative intent: that the owner departed with “exclusive dominion and control over the subject of the gift” and delivered the property to the donee (the party claiming he is the gift’s recipient).
Donative intent is determined at the time of the transfer of property, and is based on what was done or said at the time of transfer, not at some later date. The delivery element of a gift is satisfied where the parties live together (like here).
A gift in contemplation of marriage (e.g. an engagement ring) is a conditional gift. If the condition (the marriage) never materializes, the property reverts back to the gifting party.
The court rejected plaintiff’s argument that she never delivered the dog to the defendant. The plaintiff claimed that since she maintained insurance on the dog at all times and was listed as the owner on the dog’s registration papers, she never relinquished control of the dog.
The court found “documentary title is not conclusive of ownership” and noted that all that is required is that the donor part with exclusive dominion and control.
Since the plaintiff could point to no evidence that showed the gift of the dog to defendant was conditional on a later marriage or continuing the relationship, the court found that the defendant conclusively established that the dog was an unconditional gift to him and that he was the rightful owner.
Take-away: This case is post-worthy for its discussion of a somewhat arcane legal topic (in the sense that inter vivos gifts are not often the subject of published opinions) in a commonplace fact setting.
The case holds practical relevance for lawyers and non-lawyers alike as it highlights the potential complications that arise when romantic cohabitants break up and there is no formal marital union to neatly divide their personal property upon dissolution.