Donatio Mortis Causa

Donatio Mortis Causa
Donatio Mortis Causa
Full Overview Of Donatio Mortis Causa

Donatio Mortis Causa (DMC), also known as a “deathbed gift,” is a unique legal concept in estate planning and inheritance law. It refers to a gift made by an individual in contemplation of their impending death, which becomes effective upon their death. Understanding DMC is crucial for executors, beneficiaries, and legal professionals to ensure such gifts are executed properly and legally. This comprehensive overview provides an in-depth exploration of Donatio Mortis Causa, including its definition, significance, legal framework, practical implications, and measures to handle disputes within UK law.

What is Donatio Mortis Causa?

Donatio Mortis Causa (DMC) is a Latin term that translates to “gift in contemplation of death.” It is a conditional gift made by a donor who anticipates their imminent death. The gift takes effect only if the donor dies as anticipated; if the donor survives, the gift is automatically revoked. This type of gift is a hybrid between an inter vivos gift (a gift made during the donor’s lifetime) and a testamentary gift (a gift made through a will).

Importance of Donatio Mortis Causa

Understanding the concept of DMC is important for several reasons:

  1. Honouring the Donor’s Intentions: It ensures that the donor’s last-minute wishes are respected and carried out after their death.
  2. Avoidance of Probate: It allows for the transfer of certain assets without the need for probate, potentially speeding up the distribution process.
  3. Legal Clarity: It provides a clear legal framework for handling gifts made under the specific circumstances of impending death.

The legal framework governing DMC in the UK primarily derives from common law rather than statute. Fundamental case law has established the principles and conditions that must be met for a DMC to be valid.

Conditions for a Valid DMC: For a DMC to be considered valid, three essential conditions must be met:

  1. Contemplation of Impending Death: The donor must make the gift in contemplation of their impending death from a specific cause or impending peril. General apprehension of death is not sufficient.
  2. Conditional on Death: The gift must be conditional upon the donor’s death. If the donor survives the anticipated peril, the gift is automatically revoked.
  3. Delivery of the Gift: The donor must deliver the subject matter of the gift to the donee or transfer possession of something which gives control over the subject matter, such as keys to a safe deposit box or deeds to property.

Key Case Law:

  • Cain v Moon (1896): This case set out the three essential conditions for a valid DMC, which continue to be the guiding principles today.
  • Sen v Headley (1991): This case clarified that handing over the means of accessing the subject matter (e.g., keys to a deposit box) is sufficient to satisfy the requirement of delivery.

Examples of Donatio Mortis Causa

To better understand DMC, consider the following examples:

Gift of Personal Property

On her deathbed, Mrs Emily Brown tells her niece, Jane, that she wishes to give her a valuable necklace kept in her bedroom drawer. Mrs Brown hands Jane the key to the drawer. Mrs Brown dies shortly after, and Jane retrieves the necklace. This constitutes a valid DMC, as it meets the conditions of contemplation of death, conditional on death, and delivery.

Gift of a Bank Account

Mr John Smith, believing he is about to undergo a risky surgery, tells his friend, David, that he wants him to have the money in his savings account if he does not survive. Mr Smith hands David the passbook for the account. Mr Smith passes away during the surgery, and David claims the money in the account. This is a valid DMC.

Gift of Real Property

Mr Robert Johnson, seriously ill and expecting to die soon, tells his friend, Michael, that he wants him to have his cottage in the countryside. Mr Johnson hands Michael the deed to the cottage. Mr Johnson dies a few days later, and Michael claims ownership of the cottage. This is a valid DMC, assuming the deed was properly transferred.

Roles and Responsibilities of Executors and Beneficiaries

Executors and beneficiaries have crucial roles and responsibilities in handling DMC:


  • Verify the Validity: Executors must verify that the DMC meets all legal conditions.
  • Administer the Estate: Executors should account for the DMC in the administration of the estate, ensuring that other beneficiaries are aware of it.
  • Resolve Disputes: Executors may need to handle disputes arising from the DMC and ensure fair treatment of all beneficiaries.


  • Prove the DMC: Beneficiaries claiming under a DMC must provide evidence that the gift meets the necessary conditions.
  • Communicate with Executors: Beneficiaries should communicate with the executors to ensure that the DMC is acknowledged and respected during the estate administration.

Practical Implications of Donatio Mortis Causa

DMC has several practical implications for estate planning and administration:

  1. Avoidance of Probate: DMC allows certain assets to bypass the probate process, potentially expediting the distribution of those assets.
  2. Risk of Disputes: DMC can lead to disputes among beneficiaries, particularly if the gift significantly alters the distribution of the estate.
  3. Proof of Validity: Proving the validity of a DMC can be challenging, requiring clear evidence of the donor’s intent and the conditions being met.

Challenges and Solutions

Several challenges can arise with DMC, including disputes over validity and interpretation. Consider the following solutions:

  1. Clear Documentation: Ensure that the donor’s intent and the conditions of the DMC are clearly documented. This could include written statements, witness testimony, or other forms of evidence.
  2. Legal Advice: Seek legal advice when making or claiming a DMC to ensure that all legal requirements are met and to avoid potential disputes.
  3. Open Communication: Encourage open communication among beneficiaries and executors to address concerns and prevent misunderstandings.

Case Studies

To further illustrate the practical application and potential challenges of DMC, let’s consider two detailed case studies:

Disputed Validity of DMC

Mr James White, terminally ill and aware of his impending death, tells his daughter, Sarah, that he wants her to have his antique car collection. He hands her the keys to the garage where the cars are kept. After Mr White’s death, his son, Tom, disputes the validity of the DMC, arguing that there was no clear documentation of his father’s intent.

The case proceeds to court, where the judge examines the evidence, including testimony from Sarah and other family members who witnessed the conversation. The court upholds the DMC, determining that Mr White’s actions and statements clearly indicated his intent to gift the cars to Sarah. This ruling emphasises the importance of having clear evidence to support the validity of a DMC.

Inadequate Delivery of DMC

Ms Laura Green, anticipating her death due to a serious illness, tells her friend, Emma, that she wants her to have a valuable painting. Ms Green points to the painting on the wall but does not physically transfer it or provide any means of accessing it, such as a key or a deed. After Ms Green’s death, Emma claims the painting is based on the DMC.

The executor of the estate challenges the claim, arguing that the gift was not adequately delivered. The court examines the case and rules that the DMC is invalid due to the lack of delivery, as merely pointing to the painting does not satisfy the legal requirement. This case highlights the necessity of proper delivery for a DMC to be valid.

Understanding the legal implications and options for dispute resolution is essential for handling DMC effectively:

  1. Court Proceedings: If disputes over a DMC cannot be resolved amicably, court proceedings may be necessary. The court will examine the evidence and apply legal principles to determine the validity of the DMC.
  2. Mediation: Mediation can be a useful tool for resolving disputes without the need for litigation. It allows parties to reach a mutually agreeable solution with the help of a neutral mediator.
  3. Legal Costs: It is important to consider the potential legal costs associated with disputes. Seeking early legal advice can help mitigate these costs and facilitate a smoother resolution process.


Donatio Mortis Causa is a significant concept in estate planning and inheritance law. It provides a mechanism for individuals to make conditional gifts in contemplation of their impending death. By understanding the legal framework, conditions for validity, roles and responsibilities of executors and beneficiaries, and potential challenges, individuals can ensure that DMCs are handled properly and legally.

At DLS Solicitors, we are dedicated to providing comprehensive legal advice and support to ensure that your estate planning and administration are carried out smoothly and in accordance with your wishes. Our team of experienced solicitors is here to guide you through the complexities of Donatio Mortis Causa and other probate-related matters, ensuring peace of mind for you and your loved ones.


This site contains general legal information but does not constitute professional legal advice for your particular situation. Persuing this glossary does not create an attorney-client or legal adviser relationship. If you have specific questions, please consult a qualified attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.

This glossary post was last updated: 11th July 2024.

Cite Term

To help you cite our definitions in your bibliography, here is the proper citation layout for the three major formatting styles, with all of the relevant information filled in.

  • Page URL:
  • Modern Language Association (MLA):Donatio Mortis Causa. DLS Solicitors. July 23 2024
  • Chicago Manual of Style (CMS):Donatio Mortis Causa. DLS Solicitors. (accessed: July 23 2024).
  • American Psychological Association (APA):Donatio Mortis Causa. Retrieved July 23 2024, from website:
Avatar of DLS Solicitors
DLS Solicitors : Family Law Solicitors

Our team of professionals are based in Alderley Edge, Cheshire. We offer clear, specialist legal advice in all matters relating to Family Law, Wills, Trusts, Probate, Lasting Power of Attorney and Court of Protection.

All author posts