This is the question that is a subject of a Los Angeles County Superior Court lawsuit between the University of Texas and Fawcett’s former boyfriend, Ryan O’Neal. Fawcett left her art collection to the University of Texas when she died. The Universtity of Texas contends there were two Andy Warhol paintings in Fawcett’s collection. When she died, the University received one painting, but not the other. The other painting, pictured left, is in Ryan O’Neal’s living room. The University of Texas is now suing O’Neal over the painting. O’Neal defends that Warhol gave the painting to him, not Fawcett. The lawsuit started out in federal court (here is the complaint), was dismissed, and is now in Los Angeles County Superior Court.
Proving that Fawcett (or her trust) owned the painting at the time of her death could be tricky. First, unlike financial accounts, cars and real property, personal property is usually not “titled” with a deed or certificate of title or registration. Second, the Deadman’s Statute (in Washington, RCW 5.60.030) precludes people from testifying about what the decedent told them when they stand to gain from it. The University of Texas’s lawyers will need to resort to insurance records (likely the paiting was insured), photographs and witness recollections to prove their case.
This type of conflict is not uncommon in estates (In Washington, the dispute is sometimes whether the property was “community property” giving the spouse an undivided 1/2 interest, or “separate property” where the spouse has no interest, other than perhaps a small amount allowed by statute). The best way to avoid these disputes is to keep an updated inventory of personal property assets (really, all assets should be inventoried), and if/when items are given away, indicate so and to whom it was given. And remember, personal property includes intangible items, such as digital photographs, royalty rights, domain name registrations, etc. And while you’re at it, keep an inventory of email accounts and passwords. (see recent Seattle Times article on this, quoting our former colleague, Wendy Goffe, from Graham & Dunn).