Professor Bruce Kogan explains how a court's distribution of precious baseball memorabilia illuminates the law governing wills -- and the value of mediation.
FROM Rhode Island Lawyers Weekly:
"Baseball collection dispute resolved in extra innings" by Noah Schaffer
November 16th, 2012: After a seven-year long dispute over the ownership of some precious baseball memorabilia, a Superior Court judge has awarded 120 baseballs and 10 bats to the grandson of a Major League Baseball umpire who got his start in Rhode Island’s Blackstone Valley.
Robert W. Stewart amassed the collection when he worked in the American League during the 1960s alongside historic baseball figures like Ted Williams, Hank Aaron, and Joe DiMaggio (who autographed baseballs for him) and Roberto Clemente and Mickey Mantle (who signed his bats.)
Stewart died in 1981, leaving the collection, plus a World Series ring and a Cleveland Indians watch, to his son Robert A. Stewart. When Robert A. Stewart died in 2005, a dispute arose between his son from his first marriage and his second wife. Michael Stewart argued that his father wanted him to have the collection, while Karen Stewart claimed her husband meant for the collection to go to her.
After court-ordered mediation proved unsuccessful, Judge Judith Colenback Savage conducted a bench trial and awarded the collection to Michael.
In a 28-page opinion, Savage wrote that the son “batted a thousand,” while the wife “struck out.” It was not clear, she wrote, whether Michael’s father had composed a will before his death, but in 1984, his father wrote him a letter warning him of the conflict over his property that he expected would arise upon his death and stating “the baseball collection and your desk are yours.”
The judge said that intention was buttressed by the son’s possession of the collection during various times in his life. He had returned the collection to his father’s house only when he had no suitable place to store it.
Further, Savage wrote, “[i]t is clear from … the letter that Robert A. Stewart conducted an inventory of the significant items in the bedrooms of his children and stepdaughter to categorize those items that had been gifted to each of them.”
By including the collection in this inventory, the father indicated that it was not marital property, she said. “According to the letter from
father to son, therefore, Robert A. Stewart removed the Stewart Collection from the list of those items that could pass by will or
intestacy and manifested his intent that it should pass during his lifetime as gift to his son.”
Karen Stewart argued that her husband had given her the collection on his deathbed. Karen and her daughter from a previous marriage testified that Robert told her to sell the collection to support herself.
But Savage noted that the Rhode Island Supreme Court has cautioned courts to carefully scrutinize alleged deathbed conversations, and said that she found the testimony of Karen and her daughter to “lack credibility.”
Roger Williams University professor of law Bruce I. Kogan, who specializes in estate planning and mediation, recently spoke with Lawyers Weekly reporter Julie McMahon about the case.
Q. The possessions that were in dispute made this case notable, but is it common for disputes like this to end up before a judge?
A. These items appear to have both great sentimental and financial value, but the sentimental [value] seems to be motivating the fight. Unfortunately, when you fight with lawyers in court, the meter is running and you have to ask yourself if it’s worth the hundreds of dollars an hour. When I see siblings and families going through possessions to decide who gets what, it’s often a conversation about memories. It’s a question of what motivates people to feel they’ve been wronged.
Q. Was Robert A. Stewart’s personal letter to his son a suitable replacement for a will?
A. Not everyone is aware of the formalities required for a will to be valid and effective, so they sometimes attempt to record their intentions less formally. I don’t read the letter as a will; I read the letter as documenting concern about the future conflict that might arise. I don’t think the court regards it as a will either, but instead is looking into the father’s intention during his lifetime. As a point of practice, if a client came to me and said he had valuable, tangible personal property he wanted everybody to know he was giving to his son, I might recommend the client prepare some form of deed of gift … that would evidence the act of completion of the gift and have a written expression of donative intent.
Q. Do you think the items’ sentimental value to the plaintiff and the idea that they would be passed from parent to child influenced the
A. I don’t think it is sentimentality — I think the judge was reflecting on the intent first of the grandfather and then the father. This was a family that was steeped in baseball. The grandfather was an umpire. The father and grandson valued that and the connection to the grandfather. That isn’t mere sentiment. That is about family history and aspiration, the aspiration that the grandfather asked that the collection be valued. As a collection, this was something that should be passed down from generation to generation because it would enable future generations to have a sense of the family.
Q. Why did the court initially order mediation?
A. I wish it were more common in Rhode Island. When someone passes away and there’s property to be divided, the disputes that have been submerged often come to the surface. If you take the legal route to resolve a probate or family problem, it can be very complicated and delayed. The father in this case, for example, died in 2005. Some probate judges and estate administration lawyers look to the assistance of a mediator to divorce some of the legal structure from the conflict. Mediation is a more holistic approach that asks: Where going forward do you want to be as a family? There may have been more creative options in this case that would have made each party feel that while they didn’t necessarily like the outcome they’d be able to take it better.
Q. How did the Rhode Island Supreme Court’s instructions regarding deathbed conversations impact the judge’s handling of the conversation as described by the wife in this case?
A. When a court has to weigh what somebody’s subjective intent was at any particular time, it has to ask if there was intent to transfer
ownership at that time. A completed gift is typically when there is delivery and acceptance. The father isn’t alive, so all we have to go on to determine that is the objective evidence. There was a lot that went on before he was terminally ill, consistent with the grandfather’s will to pass the collection through the family’s male heirs. There was very little evidence other than the testimony of the widow that there was an expression of the father to gift the collection to his wife. You have to take that testimony with a large grain of salt.
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