In a recent case, a federal court ruled on the ownership of four Norman Rockwell illustrations. The case demonstrates the importance of careful planning for the disposition of personal property. This includes preparing a thorough accounting of such property in an estate and documenting significant gifts.

Details of the case

The case — Elam v. Early — involved four large illustrations — collectively known as “So You Want to See the President?” — created by Norman Rockwell in 1943 and gifted to Stephen T. Early, President Franklin Roosevelt’s longtime press secretary. Fast-forward 80 years to a dispute over ownership of the illustrations among Early’s descendants. Early died intestate (without a will) in 1951, survived by his wife and three children.

At the time of the dispute, Early’s wife and all three children were also deceased. One of his grandchildren (the plaintiff) sought a judgment declaring him the sole owner of the illustrations. The defendants — two other grandchildren and Early’s daughter-in-law — claimed that, under the laws of intestate succession, they each had a claim for partial ownership of the illustrations.

The plaintiff asserted that Early had gifted the illustrations to his mother in 1949 and that he acquired sole ownership through a gift or inheritance from his mother.


Possession is nine-tenths of the law

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia ruled in favor of the plaintiff, finding that he was the sole and rightful owner of the illustrations. Noting that “possession is nine-tenths of the law,” the court explained that there’s a presumption that the individual in physical possession of the property is the owner, which can be overcome by proof of superior title. In this case, the evidence showed that the plaintiff’s mother had physical possession of the illustrations from 1960 (or at least 1972) until 1978, when they were loaned to the White House until 2022.

As the last person to physically possess the illustrations, the plaintiff’s mother — and, therefore, the plaintiff — enjoyed a presumption of ownership. The defendants offered several theories to rebut the presumption, but the court found all of them to be insufficient.

Their primary argument was that the plaintiff offered no evidence that Early gifted the illustrations to the plaintiff’s mother, so that they must have passed through the laws of intestate succession. But pointing to this lack of evidence wasn’t enough for the defendants to meet their burden of producing evidence of superior title. The defendants also attempted to rebut the presumption under a theory of theft by the plaintiff, but offered no proof.

Not only did the defendants fail to meet their burden, but the evidence actually supported the conclusion that the plaintiff had superior title. Most significant, when Early died, the official accounting of his estate didn’t include the illustrations, even though, as the defendants admitted, they were their “most precious and prized possession.”

The accounting — deemed “a true and perfect inventory” of Early’s estate — was signed under oath by Early’s wife and included assets worth as little as $1.50. “One can only conclude,” the court reasoned, “that the illustrations were not a part of … Early’s estate because he had already gifted them during his lifetime.”

This conclusion was supported by the fact that, of Early’s heirs, only the plaintiff’s mother referred to the illustrations in her estate plan. Although the defendants offered several hypotheses for the omission of the illustrations from the other heirs’ estates — including tax avoidance — the court dismissed them as “rank speculation.”


Document your gifts

As this case illustrates, to ensure that your wishes are carried out, it’s critical to prepare a complete inventory of personal property and to carefully document lifetime gifts. Had Early documented the gift to his daughter, the parties may have avoided litigation.

© 2024

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