Questions regarding Deeds of Gift

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    • #132333
      Jan Yaeger

      I work at a very small museum where we are just now trying to put in place the  documents, policies, etc. that will allow us to operate as a “proper” museum.

      When I arrived, there were no deeds of gift in place for donated items, and I am now trying to remedy that situation. This has raised a couple of questions:

      1) One donor to whom I sent a deed of gift form listing the items we have accessioned returned the form with additional items hand-written in. We do have possession of these items but have not accessioned them and frankly do not want them as part of our permanent collection. For political reasons, asking her to sign a fresh deed of gift and not make additions could be problematic. So my question is – does her handwritten note on the form obligate us to accept these items?

      2) Most of our donors are deceased, and the items from them were given during their lifetime rather than as part of an estate, so there is, again, no paper trail. I am finding no legal statutes as to how to deal with these items. How have other museums dealt with this situation?


    • #132341

      My concern would be whether you or a museum rep had alredy signed the document before it was sent to her. If she made alterations after the fact, what are the ramifications?


    • #132340

      If you don’t have a temporary custody form or anything saying what you can do with these other artifacts, I would try to address the situation with the donor and be honest that they were accepted without any consideration as to how they would fit in the collection and see if she would like them back or allow you to dispose of them.

      You probably can’t get rid of them if you don’t have any other title, so it sounds like you have a title issue whether they were on the original deed of gift or not. I’ve accepted things in the past for the education collection that are listed on a deed of gift so they’re not accessioned into the permanent collection but I talk to the donor about it and let them know exactly how donations are being used and then track what collection they wind up in.

    • #132339
      Janice Klein

      Okay, a couple of different things are going on here.   The first (and those of you who know me can skip this paragraph), you don’t need a Deed of Gift to prove ownership.   There are three legal requirements for a gift to take place:


    • #132338
      Janice Klein

      Sorry, let’s try that again without the cat on keyboard.    There are three legal requirements for a gift to take place:

      1. an offer

      2. an acceptance

      3. a transfer of property

      If you have something that says “I’d like to give this to you” and something that says “Thanks very much” and the objects, then all the legal requirements of a gift have taken place.   A Deed of Gift is an internal museum document that pulls the first two requirements together in a neat package (often with some more standard language about copyright, authority to make the gift and the usual IRS disclaimer about “no goods or services”).   However, it is not a legal requirement.

      Next, a Deed of Gift (or offer and acceptance documents) can list items that the donor is giving to the museum but are not being added to (i.e., accessioned) the permanent collection.    Again, the law (and the IRS) makes no distinction about accessioned vs non-accessioned.    [There is a different between items accepted for a use related to the museum’s mission and those not-related, but we’ll leave that for another day.]    There should be a document somewhere that lists everything a donor is giving you.    I suspect your donor added those items because from her perspective you seem to have forgotten to list everything she is giving you.     Shannon is right that you should let her know that some of these items will not be added to the permanent collection, but used in other ways (e.g., education).   But there’s no problem with putting all of them on the Deed of Gift and identifying some as “not to be accessioned”.

      Finally, you don’t need to send her a new Deed of Gift.    If the appropriate museum officer has not yet signed the Deed s/he can do it now; if it was already signed by said person, s/he can just initial the changes and you can send a copy back to the donor.


    • #132337


      Just for clarification purposes, In my case, we have a temporary custody form which is signed by the donor. If we then send a thank you letter, stating that we received and are accessioning all or certain of the items on the Temporary Custody Form, do we still need to send and have them sign a deed of gift, Or is that just creating extra work?

    • #132336
      Janice Klein

      Sorry if I wasn’t clear.   A Deed of Gift is an excellent and important part of collections documentation and I would strongly recommend creating one for each new acquisition.    However, the lack of a Deed for past acquisitions (particularly when faced with an old collection with no Deeds of Gift and dead donors) need not be cause for alarm since legal ownership can be shown through the presence of other documentation (offer and acceptance) and the physical transfer of the items.

    • #132335
      Jan Yaeger

      Thanks, everyone, for your input!

      In the case of the deceased donors, there is no documentation I am aware of beyond notes in the database  -i.e., no written offers or acceptance. Most of the items have been in the museum’s possession for twenty -thirty years, but with just hand-written notecards by volunteers noting whom the item came from – and now most of the notecards have gone missing as well.

    • #132334
      Patricia Miller

      Just to muddy the water, or perhaps to offer a different route for the future when you have things in your possession that have been there a long time, but there is no Deed of Gift, Marie Malaro offers another way to go besides sending a Deed of Gift form. She calls this “confirming” the gift, if the donors are still available. This consists of sending a letter to the donor asking the donor to sign a confirmation that X period of time ago he or she gave an object (described) to the museum and that it was unrestricted, etc. This information is included in the section on Deeds of Gift. This process establishes the time when the charitable contribution was made. See Malaro, Marie C., and Ildiko DeAngelis. A Legal Primer on Managing Museum Collections. 3rd ed. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 2012.

      Pat Miller

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