Can Charlie Sheen take back his Mercedes from Natalie Kenly?

Answers to your questions about the news.
June 29 2011 4:18 PM

Charlie Sheen Wants His Car Back

Does his ex-girlfriend have to return it?

A Mercedes. Click image to expand.
Can Charlie Sheen get his Mercedes back?

The last of Charlie Sheen's "goddess"-girlfriends, Natalie Kenly, left the struggling actor last week. According to celeb gossip site TMZ, the former sitcom star demanded that she return the Mercedes he bought for her in February. Does Kenly have to give the car back?

Only if it was a loaner. Giving a gift represents an immediate and complete relinquishment of any property rights, so a true gift never has to be returned. But when couples break up, they frequently get into legal spats over whether a piece of jewelry, a pet, or even a Mercedes was really a gift in the first place. As all law students know, there are three elements—that's lawyer-talk for requirements—in gift-giving: donative intent, delivery, and acceptance. In other words, the giver must intend to give the thing away, it must actually change hands, and the recipient has to take it. (Acceptance is rarely an issue in legal disputes.) Without all three, the original owner can demand his property back.

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The delivery requirement is a useful way to prove that the item was a gift. The theory is that, if a gift-giver can overcome the so-called "wrench of delivery" when handing over his property, he must really mean to give the object away. Since large items like cars and houses are too big to physically hand off, courts are satisfied with "constructive delivery." That means Sheen could have completed the legal transfer by giving Kenly a key, wrapping the car in a bow, or tucking a photograph of the car into a greeting card—although those gestures seem a little too sweet for the MaSheen.

If Sheen's case were to end up in court, his lawyers would likely focus on donative intent. They would probably argue that the car was just a loaner for Kenly to drive during the term of their relationship. Absent explicit statements indicating Sheen's purpose, the judge would have to consider circumstantial evidence like whether Sheen held title to the car in his name or if he kept his own key.

If the loaner line doesn't work, Sheen has a potential backup argument, but it's a long shot. He could argue that the car was a "gift in contemplation of marriage." Many states, including California, have special laws addressing these kinds of gifts. They're usually engagement rings, but they can be any kind of property. In the Golden State, the recipient of a gift in contemplation of marriage has to return the present if he or she is the one who breaks of the engagement or if it's broken by mutual agreement. (The states are all over the map on this issue. Some require the ring to be returned in all circumstances, while others let the recipient keep it no matter what.)

It's plausible that Sheen intended the car as an engagement gift. There were reports that he planned to unofficially marry Kenly and her co-"goddess" Rachel Oberlin soon after he gave each of them a Mercedes. Unfortunately for Sheen, California is yet to recognize polygamous marriages. That would be a difficult obstacle to overcome.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Jane Baron of Temple University Beasley School of Law and Mary Louise Fellows of the University of Minnesota Law School.

Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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