It is not unusual to find people making gifts and promises on their deathbed - sometimes the imminence of death seems to clarify people's feelings and wishes. The Court will uphold these types of promises in certain circumstances, including where they amount to a 'donatio mortis causa' - a deathbed gift.
However, given advances in medicine, people may be on their 'deathbeds' for some time or at least feel that there is a possibility of impending death even where this actually turns out to be some time off. In the case of Vallee v Birchwood, Re Bogusz deceased  EWHC 1449 (Ch) the court considered the question of how long in advance of death a person could make a valid ‘deathbed’ gift.
Mr Bogusz had an adopted daughter, Ms Vallee. Shortly before his death, she visited him and said that she would visit again at Christmas. Mr Bogusz's response was that he did not expect to live that long and that he wanted her to have his house. He gave her the title deeds and keys to the house but did not take any further steps to transfer the property into her name.
Mr Bogusz died approximately 3 months later without leaving a will. The property formed the entirety of the estate. Ms Vallee appointed solicitors who wrote to the Treasury Solicitor to claim the property on the grounds that it had been left to her as a deathbed gift. The Treasury Solicitor refused to accept that claim and advertised for other beneficiaries. The defendant, an heir hunter, tracked down Mr Bogusz's brother in the Ukraine and obtained a Grant of Letters of Administration in his name.
Ms Vallee issued proceedings for a declaration that the Administrator held the property on trust for her. The judge agreed that he did, but the Administrator appealed. The appeal was dismissed. The court set out the conditions required for a deathbed gift:
- The gift had to be made in contemplation of impending death;
- The gift had to be conditional - not to take effect until the Claimant's death and being revocable until then;
- There had to be delivery of the subject matter of the gift or title to it.
In this case, the Court felt that the gift of the property satisfied these conditions:
- It was made in contemplation of death, even though that death was a few months later. The deceased’s motive for the gift was because he was contemplating his impending death.
- The gift was conditional - the deceased intended to remain living in the property until his death.
- The deceased had given his daughter the keys and title deeds to the house, and this amounted to delivery of dominion over the property.
In the circumstances, the gift amounted to a donatio mortis causa and was being held by the Administrator on trust for Ms Vallee.