Wedding Gifts

Darwish v. Darwish, 100 Mich App 758 (1980), claiming to be a case of first impression in Michigan, confronts this in a fairly comprehensive manner, though the reasoning in the case seems pretty thin. The case starts off ok, looking to answers from other jurisdictions and then concluding that "no presumption as to ownership may be indulged in the case of wedding gifts…". Id at 773. However, as opposed to the rational and practical result---treating all wedding gifts as ordinary property and allowing a skewed division only as based upon equitable proofs---the court goes on to state that "not only must the expressed intention of the giver be taken into consideration, but the intention of the wedded couple as well". Id at 773-774. Let me guess at the testimony of 100% of these sorts of disputes:

Attorney X: What was your intent in giving the leg lamp as a wedding present?

Grandpa Jones: That was for my daughter. I never thought that he would actually

get it.

Attorney X: You didn’t know they were going to be living together after they were

married?

Grandpa Jones: I knew. But I thought he would pay rent on it.

Attorney X: But it was a gift, right?

Grandpa Jones: Yes. to my daughter---not that bum.

Anyone who thinks the foregoing is an exaggeration has never sat through a domestic case. And, of course, we all know that the "intention of the wedded couple" will be uniform and simple to discern. But Darwish seems to get back on track with the sensible holding in dealing with the facts before it, finding that "Wedding gifts which are to be used and enjoyed jointly should be considered the same as property purchased by the husband and wife jointly." Id. But then it loses its way again stating "Unless the wedding gifts are appropriate only for the present use of one of the spouses, the gifts should be deemed the joint property of the parties, subject to division upon dissolution of the marriage, in the absence of a specific showing that the intent was that such nonpersonal gift be "earmarked" for either husband or wife.". Id at 775. I have no clue what a "nonpersonal" gift is. In the above context it seems to mean a gift not obviously to one spouse or the other. This enigma aside, it seems the rule that they are trying to establish is if (a) a wedding gift is clearly intended to be the property of one party it should belong to that party and (b) properties subject to use by both spouses should be deemed ordinary, divisible property, unless there are clear proofs the donor intended one party only to "have" the item. This is a wacky rule and puts way to much pressure on trial courts in discerning after the fact intents on items of relatively trivial value.

The reason that Darwish has so much trouble with such a simple issue is that it assumes "gifts" have some special status in the law. They don’t. There is nothing in the Michigan legislative scheme that makes gifts different from any other properties accumulated by a couple. The issue is a no-brainer if the courts merely discern the statutes as they are written and conclude (a) everything owned by a couple is "martial" but (b) Michigan is an "equitable distribution" state and properties need not be divided in any manner, so long as the division comports with notions of equity as have been historically recognized by the courts.’ Under (a) and (b) the review by appellate courts is simple. It is, did (a) the lower court make an adequate record and explain the basis for its division and (b) was this division "out of bounds" or "at odds" with the equitable considerations defined over the past 60 years of Michigan jurisprudence? These considerations, of course, include notions of "source", as tempered by other realities, such as the length of the marriage and the financial realities of the parties.