On March 22nd, Beermann secured a major victory on appeal, successfully reversing a judgment of the trial court and thereby permitting its client to retain tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of jewelry gifted to her by her former husband during their marriage. In In re Marriage of Solomon, 2016 IL App (1st) 142969-U, the First District Appellate Court agreed with Beermann, and concluded that the trial court erred by ignoring documentary evidence which indicated that the husband intended to make a gift of certain pieces of jewelry to his former wife, and therefore held that the wife was entitled to keep that jewelry.
Following his mother’s death, the husband gave the wife approximately $40,000 in his mother’s jewelry as a gift. That gift was memorialized in a written document, authored by the husband, entitled “ITEMS I GIFTED TO [MY WIFE] FROM MY MOTHER’S JEWELRY COLLECTION.” Notwithstanding that document, the husband argued at trial that he only intended for his wife to have his mother’s jewelry “for her lifetime,” and suggested that the wife should be required to donate the jewelry, rather than keep it. The trial court disregarded the document created by the husband, and concluded that his testimony established that he did not intend to make a gift of his mother’s jewelry. The trial court therefore ordered Beermann’s client to either return the jewelry — or the proceeds from the sale of the jewelry – to the husband. Beermann appealed.
In the Appellate Court, Beermann argued that the trial court failed to properly apply the longstanding principle that when property is transferred from one spouse to another, the law presumes a gift. Thus, the burden should have been placed upon the husband to prove that he did not intend to make a gift to his wife.
While the parties gave conflicting testimony, Beermann maintained – and the Appellate Court agreed – that the document created by the husband, indicating that he gifted the jewelry to his wife was entitled to greater weight than the testimony of the parties and, accordingly, the husband failed to overcome the presumption in favor of a gift. Thus, the Appellate Court concluded that the trial court’s refusal to consider that document and its decision to award the jewelry to the husband was against the manifest weight of the evidence. And, rather than remanding the case to the trial court, the Appellate Court proactively employed its powers to reverse the Trial Court’s decision and entered judgment accordingly.
There are two key lessons to be gleaned from this case: First, always be mindful of what you put in writing. As the husband learned in this case, even the most plausible explanation for one’s actions will not take precedence over documentary evidence. Second, while trial courts can – and do – make mistakes, all is not lost. Even when faced with a highly deferential standard of review, unsuccessful litigants can still prevail through the appellate process. The wife was represented by Family Law Partner Thomas T. Field and Business Litigation Attorney Matthew D. Elster on appeal.
Matthew D. Elster, Business Law