The original blue gingham (love that word) dress worn by Judy Garland’s character, Dorothy, in the 1939 movie the Wizard of Oz, is causing quite a stir. Gifted to Reverend Gilbert Hartke, founder of The Catholic University of America’s Department of Speech and Drama, in the early 1970s, it was thought to have been lost after the priest’s death in 1986. Found by a university lecturer, the school put it up for auction with bids upwards to $1.2M.
Enters stage left, the reverend’s 81-year-old niece, Barbara Hartke, claiming that the costume was part of her uncle’s estate, and she’s the rightful heir. In a Federal New York Court, Hartke argued that her uncle gifted her the dress and there is no evidence that her uncle donated the dress to the school. On the other hand, the Catholic school claims that in becoming a priest of the Roman Catholic Church’s Dominican Order, the reverend had vowed never to possess “temporal goods” and the garment could not be considered part of his estate as he had no estate. Super interesting! The Judge ruled to stop the auction and the case will depend on what side can produce the most compelling evidence of a gift.
So, what can we learn from this over the rainbow dispute (sorry, I can’t help it!)
We can talk a little bit about gifts. In Florida, a gift is considered to be complete when there is a relinquishment of control. The test in gifting is whether the gift was actually delivered and all ties to it were relinquished by the former owner. Florida has held that the Causa Mortis doctrine (gifts made while on one’s death bed where death is imminent) are valid should there be some physical transfer of the asset. Just saying you’re gifting something will most likely not hold as a valid gift; we look for evidence in the physical act of giving.
So, there we have it, Florida law would probably not side with the niece as there was no evidence of a physical transfer of the dress, it was lost for all those years. However, it’s unclear if the priest truly doesn’t have an estate to contend with…. And here you thought estate planning was boring LOL
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