Tuesday, December 01, 2009

In Re Marriage of Buie & Neighbors (Cal. Ct. App. - Dec. 1, 2009)

I have to mention this case. For two (admittedly trivial) reasons.

First, I like the caption. "In Re Marriage of Buie & Neighbors". No, it's not a case from Utah. The wife's name is Tatia Buie, and the husband's name is Walter Neighbors. Still. Funny.

Second, I like that the only thing the case is about is whether the husband owns the 2001 Porsche 996 outright, or whether half of it belongs to his ex-wife. No fights about kids, houses, alimony, etc. Nothing important like that. Down here in San Diego, we fight about a 9-year old Porsche.

The merits are actually worth mention as well. The car was bought with wife's separate funds and allegedly "given" to the husband shortly before his birthday. Well, gifts can be separate property, but they generally require a writing, which doesn't exist here. But the writing requirement does not apply "to a gift between the spouses of clothing, wearing apparel, jewelry, or other tangible articles of a personal nature that is used solely or principally by the spouse to whom the gift is made and that is not substantial in value taking into account the circumstances of the marriage" (emphasis mine). Since everyone agrees that husband used the Porche and the spouses were hugely wealthy, the only question is whether the car was a "tangible article of a personal nature."

So a straightforward issue of statutory interpretation. The trial court thought that the Porche qualified, since it was tangible (duh) and pretty personal. That's eminently reasonable, and a pretty good textual take. Plus it's supported by both the representative list as well as the policy of the statute, since I think one could readily view a Porche to be sort of like jewelry for dudes.

But the Court of Appeal reverses. Principally due to legislative history. And as far as that goes, the legislative history includes a pretty telling sentence from the source of the legislation -- the California Law Revision Commission -- that says: "the gift of an automobile, for example, would not create a presumption that the property is separate, since an automobile is not an article of a personal nature within the meaning of the [statute]."

So it's a classic modern day statutory interpretation battle. The text, read alone, suggests (in my view, strongly) X. But the legislative history even more strongly suggests Y. Which rules?

Personally, I might fall somewhere in the middle. Most cars might not be items of a personal nature, since in most marriages, they aren't treated that way. Personally, for example, although I have "my" car (a 2000 Nissan Maxima) and my wife has "hers" (a 2001 Nissan Altima), and we generally drive our own cars, there are definitely times we drive the other's, and I have no doubt that they're not items of a "personal" nature in our family.

But I can see at least the possibility that other families would be different. Particularly when a car is "special" like a Porsche, and perhaps of interest to only one of the spouses. So I might be of the opinion that the truth falls somewhere in between, and that perhaps neither the text nor the legislative history establishes an absolute principal.

But the Court of Appeals feels otherwise, and after all, the legislative history isn't as nuanced as my personal vision. So be it.
POSTSCRIPT - One of my readers (again, anonymity is always assured here at the California Appellate Report) had a great thought: What if the car had a manual transmission and only one of the spouses could knew how to drive a stick? That would seem powerful, powerful evidence that the car was indeed "personal" to one of the spouses.