Turchin v. Turchin, — So.3d —-, 2009 WL 2871564 (Fla. 4th DCA Sep 09, 2009)

If I buy an investment property with my own pre-marital funds but jointly title the property with my wife, what was my intent?  Did I intend to gift a 1/2 interest in the property to her, or did I put her name on the deed for convenience purposes only?  Especially when the person who put up all the money is dead, it’s next to impossible to establish with certainty what exactly were his intentions when the deed was signed.

We could spend years litigating each of these cases, or we could assume that most people who jointly title property intend to make a gift, and let those who believe otherwise bear the burden of proving no gift was intended.  In Florida we’ve opted for the latter approach: a gift is presumed whenever property is jointly titled. The side that benefits from this presumption in litigation has a huge advantage, which explains why these cases often turn on the evidentiary-presumption issue [click here, here, here, here].

Can a valid pre-nup’ trump the default presumptions governing joint property under Florida law?

One of the primary reasons people sign marital agreements is to reverse or otherwise alter the default presumptions applicable to property acquired before or after marriage. So it would have been a big deal if when put to the test – as in the linked-to opinion – a marital agreement’s property distribution scheme failed to work as intended; not because of some drafting error, but because it simply didn’t comport with Florida law.

Fortunately the agreement worked. As framed by the 4th DCA the question at issue in the linked-to opinion was simple:

Can a decedent’s surviving spouse rely on Florida’s “gift presumptions” to ignore the terms of her valid pre-nup’ and claim as her own the sales proceeds of jointly-titled property purchased by her deceased husband with his separate premarital assets?

According to the probate judge the answer was clearly NO. The 4th DCA agreed, here’s why:

Sharyn Turchin now appeals, arguing, among other things, that the trial court erred in failing to apply a gift presumption when the properties were jointly titled in the names of husband and wife. Although Sharyn Turchin is correct that a gift is presumed under Florida law when property is purchased by one spouse but placed in both names, this presumption does not apply when the antenuptial agreement specifically designates how the jointly held property is to be distributed. See Bowen v. Bowen, 345 S.C. 243, 547 S.E.2d 877, 881 (2001); cf. Hannon v. Hannon, 740 So.2d 1181, 1187 (Fla. 4th DCA 1999) (“As a general matter, the provisions in chapter 61 on alimony do not exist to displace nuptial agreements; rather the statutes exist to set the principles when there is no agreement.”). “A primary purpose of an [antenuptial] agreement is to modify or shrink the general discretion of [a] judge in doing equity between the parties. The agreement itself is intended to define the mutual equities, and the trial judge is not free to ignore its provisions or to render them ineffective.” Hannon, 740 So.2d at 1187. Because the antenuptial agreement in this case unambiguously provided for the manner of distribution of jointly held property based upon who funded the acquisition, the presumption does not apply. Accordingly, the trial court properly declined to apply the gift presumption. We therefore affirm.