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Causa mortis is a legal term which refers to a gift which is made in anticipation of imminent death. There are certain conditions which must be present for a gift to be considered a gift causa mortis. Such gifts, for tax purposes, are treated like legacies made in a will, although they are given during life by the donee. People may refer to such gifts as “deathbed gifts,” recognizing the circumstances in which they are usually given.
The first condition which must be satisfied to classify something as a gift causa mortis is that it must be offered when the donor is facing imminent death and is aware of it. Thus, someone who is dying of cancer who says “when I die, I want you to have my car” is making a gift causa mortis. Nearness of death is also important, which means that similar statements from people who are not about to die are not considered valid.
The gift must also be conveyed to the donee, with the understanding that the gift is revocable in nature. In the example above, the donor could tell the donee where the keys to the car and its title are, with the understanding that if the donor makes an unexpected recovery, the gift must be returned. In other words, a gift causa mortis does not actually take effect until the donor dies. Until that point, the donee does not have full title.
There may be cases in which conveyance is simply not possible. For instance, someone could declare the intent that a specific person receive an item in a safe deposit box, but the safe deposit box might not be accessible, for whatever reasons. In such cases, the donee can present the executor of the estate with evidence to support the claim on the item gifted causa mortis, and the executor can determine whether or not the claim is valid. If, for example, the item under dispute has already been explicitly named in a legacy for someone else, the deathbed wish may not be honored.
When someone receives a causa mortis gift, it is advisable to document it so that there cannot be dispute over the validity of the gift later. This can include making sure that possession is taken in front of witnesses, and that witnesses are also present for the statement that the item is being given away. People who are not clear about the tax implications of such gifts can contact an accountant.