November 21, 2011
Authored by: Luke Lantta
It’s probably not a good idea to try to make an oral gift of land. There’s a reason why the law does not look favorably on oral contracts to transfer land, and there’s a reason why proving an oral transfer of property is so difficult. Not that it’s impossible. While the Statute of Frauds generally requires transfer of an interest in land to be in writing, there are exceptions.
In Jones v. Kirk, the Georgia Supreme Court addressed the line between what is – and what is not – a valuable improvement to the subject property so as to move the needle in favor of an enforceable oral agreement to transfer real property. Here’s a hint – moving your mobile home onto the land isn’t a “valuable improvement.”
Through his will, Clyde Willis Jones bequeathed a life estate of 40 acres to his wife, Olla Belle Fields. When Olla died, Clyde’s five children were to receive a fee simple interest in the 40 acres that would be divided equally between them.
Freddie Jones, Clyde’s grandson, had been living on a 2.2 acre tract that was part of the larger 40 acres. Freddie claimed that the 2.2 acres were an oral gift to him from Clyde.
After Olla died, four of Clyde’s heirs sought to sell the property so they filed a petition for partition of the 40 acres. One of Clyde’s heirs, Jackie E. Jones, however, didn’t want the land to be sold and refused to sign the petition. The trial court granted the petition ordering that the 40 acres be sold.
Freddie saw a newspaper ad for the sale of the 40 acres, including the 2.2 acre tract on which he was living, so Freddie intervened in the partition proceeding. The heirs moved for summary judgment alleging that there was no evidence that Freddie owned the 2.2 acre tract. The trial court and the Georgia Supreme Court agreed.
Although transfers of property usually need to be in writing, Georgia has an equitable exception to the Statute of Frauds that Freddie claimed applied. Equity will uphold an oral agreement transferring land if possession of the land has been given under such an oral agreement, upon a meritorious consideration, and valuable improvements have been made upon the faith of the voluntary agreement or gratuitous promise of the donor.
Freddie provided some evidence that he possessed the land based on an alleged oral promise and that meritorious consideration was given in return for the promise. Apparently that meritorious consideration was the natural love and affection of a grandfather for his grandson.
Freddie completely failed to show that he made any valuable improvements to the land based on Clyde’s promise to convey the land to him. Although Freddie moved his mobile home onto the land, the move was to be closer to his grandfather and not upon faith in the gift itself.
Even if Freddie had placed his mobile home on the property in connection with the promise that the land would someday be his, the outcome would not have been any different. Because a mobile home may be “rolled away at any time,” it was not a valuable improvement. In other words, a valuable improvement is permanent in nature.
There were some valuable improvements made to the land – installation of a septic system and fence – but these improvements were made by Clyde, not Freddie.