This week’s question comes from Shelia D in South City who asks: “I am really upset about what my uncle recently did. He had, since I was young, promised me that he would give me his Camaro when he got a new car. He got a new car and, instead of giving his old car to me, he gave it to his son who he just made up with after years of hating each other. I feel that the car should be mine. Can I do anything to get the car?”
Shelia, your situation is one which many people encounter, the enforceability of a promise. The law has examined this question in many forms over the years. The enforceability of agreements is analyzed under the law of contracts. A contract involves an offer, acceptance and what we call consideration. In short, someone must make an offer to sell or do something; the other party must accept the offer and something of value must be exchanged (consideration).
If, following the formation of the contract the party which made the promise fails to perform the promise (do what they offered) then a legal action can be brought to enforce the contract. If the offering party keeps their promise, and the consideration is not delivered then they may sue to enforce the contract and recover the contract price (amount or type of consideration). Some things promised will not be enforced, those which are illegal or against public policy such as gambling debts, purchase or sale of drugs, or other unlawful conduct.
In the situation you describe there is no contract. There is an gratuitous, unenforceable, promise of a gift. It is a unilateral promise without consideration. California Civil Code Section 1146 defines a gift as follows: “A gift is a transfer of personal property, made voluntarily, and without consideration.” Section 1147 says that a verbal gift is generally unenforceable unless the means of obtaining possession and control of the thing are given.
Three things are necessary for a valid gift: (1) there must be an intent, on the part of a donor/giver having capacity to contract, to make an unconditional gift; (2) there must be an actual or symbolical delivery, such as to relinquish all control by the donor/giver; and (3) the done/receiver must signify acceptance, except where it may be presumed. Here you never received the car.
Under the donative-promise principle, a simple, un-relied upon donative promise is unenforceable. In the past, this principle has been explained largely on the ground that a rule under which such promises were enforceable would involve significant process problems. Legal scholars have explained this principle as follows: “The world of gift would be impoverished if simple donative promises that are based on affective considerations, such as love or friendship, were folded into the hard-headed world of contract.”
In the past, the courts have ruled that “the major reason given for the rule against enforcing gratuitous one side promises has been that significant process problems would result if simple donative promises were enforceable–for example, it would be very easy falsely to convince a jury that such a promise had been made–and that the substantive reasons for enforcing simple donative promises were too weak to outweigh those process problems.”
Like all areas of the law, there are exceptions to this rule. For example, if you had done something in reliance upon this promise, like paying for maintenance, repairs, registration, etc., you might have a claim that your uncle should be required to transfer the title to you under a theory called promissory estoppel. This means that the consideration or value in which can be used to enforce the contract might be proven if, because of the promise, you relied upon the promise to your disadvantage. From the limited facts that you have provided, unfortunately, I do not see an enforceable promise here.
In closing, I will provide one of the most unique promises that the law recognizes as an exception, i.e. the engagement ring. California Civil Code Section 1590 states that where either party to a contemplated marriage in this California makes a gift of money or property to the other on the basis or assumption that the marriage will take place, in the event that the receiver of the (ring) property refuses to enter into the marriage as contemplated or that it is given up by mutual consent, the giver may recover such gift (ring etc.) or such part of its value as may, under all of the circumstances of the case, be found by a court or jury to be just.
By attorney Christopher B. Dolan, owner of the Dolan Law Firm. Email Chris questions and topics for future articles to email@example.com
At times off and on over the years I have been promised I would be given something and it didn’t happen. At first I was upset, then I later decided people have a right to change their mind. Something circled around for them and there was a better choice, maybe it was even simply to keep the item.
I gave my son and his wife $25,000 in a check in 2014 and a second check for $25,000 in 2015. The gift proceeds were to be used as a down payment for his home, which the gift was used. I received an oral right along with my wife, at the time in 2015 to occupy a mother-in-law unit attached to the house owned by my and his wife. When we moved-in to the mother-in-law unit. in April 2015 yy wife at the time, informed me that she was to occupy a bedroom in the main part of the house. I was to occupy the single bedroom in the mother-in-law unit. I moved-in to the mother-in-law unit i May, 2015. I was served by third party devorice papers on a night in March, 2016. My son asked me to leave his home.. He gave me $1,000 to help pay rent deposit to rent a room in another state. I moved to the home of my my younger son,per his request, in late April, 2016. The devorice was concluded in June 2016. The value of the oral no rent paid by ex-wife or me agreement was not settled as part of the devorce with my wife in 2016. Have I any right to compensation. My now EX wife lives in the mother-in-law unit. This entire matter smell strange. Devorice in Minn.