Robison v. Female Orphan Asylum/Opinion of the Court

United States Supreme Court

123 U.S. 702

Robison  v.  Female Orphan Asylum


It is now contended in argument, on the part of the appellant, (1) that the language of the third subdivision of the will, considered by itself, is sufficient to give to her the real estate in fee and the personal estate absolutely; (2) that the bequest in the fourth subdivision of the will to Ann Smith and Eleonora Cummings Robison is contingent on one of them surviving both the testator and the complaint, and, as the event happened, never became vested; (3) that the bequest to the defendants is dependent upon the vesting of the bequest to Ann Smith and Eleonora Cummings Robison, being affected by the same contingency, namely, one of them surviving the testator and the complainant; and (4) that, if the interest of the complainant under the third subdivision of the will must be limited to a life-estate, as the bequest contained in the fourth subdivision have lapsed, or cannot take effect, the testator died intestate in respect to that portion of his estate.

In support of the proposition that the bequest to the defendants must fall with that to Ann Smith and Eleonora Cummings Robison, counsel for the appellant rely upon the rule laid down by Mr. Jarman in the following language: 'When a contingent particular estate is followed by other limitations, a question frequently arises whether the contingency affects such estate only, or extends to the whole series. The rule in these cases seems to be that, if the ulterior limitations be immediately consecutive on the particular estate in unbroken continuity, and no intention or purpose is expressed with reference to t at estate, in contradistinction to the others, the whole will be considered to hinge on the same contingency; and that, too, although the contingency relate personally to the object of the particular estate, and therefore appear not reasonably applied to the ulterior limitations. Thus, where an estate for life is made to depend on the contingency of the object of it being alive at the period when the preceding estates determine, limitations consecutive on that estate have been held to be contingent on the same event for want of something in the will to authorize a distinction between them.' 1 Jarm. Wills, (5th Amer. Ed. by Bigelow,) *831.

But the rule referred to is one of construction merely, and intended only as a formula for the purpose of classifying cases in which the meaning is gathered from the language of the testator expressing such intention, and is not to be applied to instances in which it appears that the contingency is restricted to the immediate estate. The same author divides those instances into two other classes: 'First. Where the words of contingency are referable to and evidently spring from an intention which the testator has expressed in regard to that estate by way of distinction from the others. Secondly. The contingency is restricted to the particular estate with which it stands associated where the ulterior limitations do not follow such contingent estate in one uninterrupted series in the nature of remainders, but assume the form of substantive independent gifts.' Id. 831, 832. Under the second of these classes is ranged the case of Boosey v. Gardener, 5 De Gex, M. & G. 122. In that case the testator bequeathed to his two sisters the interest of his long annuities for their lives, and, in case of one or both of their deaths before his, he gave the whole interest in long annuities to his brother for life; at his death, (that is, the death of the brother,) the testator gave half of the capital to his niece, A., his brother's daughter, to help to bring her up, till she attained the age of 21, then to receive half the capital; likewise, the testator bequeathed to his nephew, S., his brother's son, if not further family, his other half; in case of further family to be divided between them, not dividing the half left to A. It was held by TURNER, L. J., that the bequest to the niece and nephew was not contingent upon the death of the sisters in the testator's life-time, although the preceding estate for life to the brother was. But little aid, however, in such cases is to be derived from a resort to formal rules, or a consideration of judicial determinations in other cases apparently similar. It is a question in each case of the reasonable interpretation of the words of the particular will, with the view of ascertaining through their meaning the testator's intention.

In applying this principle, the supreme judicial court of Massachusetts, in the case of Metcalf v. Framingham Parish, 128 Mass. 370, 374, speaking by GRAY, C. J., said: 'The decision of this question doubtless depends upon the intention of the testator, as manifested by words that he has used, and an omission to express his intention cannot be supplied by conjecture; but if a reading of the whole will produces a conviction that the testator must necessarily have intended an interest to be given which is not bequeathed by express and formal words, the court must supply the defect by implication, and so mould the language of the testator as to carry into effect, so far as possible, the intention which it is of opinion that he has on the whole will sufficiently declared. Ferson v. Dodge, 23 Pick. 287; Towns v. Wentworth, 11 Moore, P. C. 526; Abbott v. Middleton, 7 H. L. Cas. 68; Greenwood v. Greenwood, 5 Ch. Div. 954.'

Looking into the present will, therefore, for that purpose, we find it evident that the testator did not intend by the third subdivision of his will to give to his widow an interest in his estate beyond her life. Thi conclusion is not based on any distinction between a bequest of the income of the estate and a bequest of the body of the estate itself; nor do we lay any stress on the declaration in that clause, 'she having the right to spend the same, but not to have it accumulate for her heirs,' although that language does afford an indication in support of the conclusion. But whatever force, standing by itself, the third subdivision might have, it is clear that the testator intended, in the event that his sister, Ann Smith, and Eleonora Cummings Robison should survive both himself and his wife, that they should have an estate for life, beginning at the death of his widow. That would necessarily limit the widow's estate to her own life. But as the estate given by the fourth clause to Ann Smith and Eleonora Cummings Robison for their lives was contingent on the event that one or the other of them should be living at the death of the wife, the question remains whether that contingency also entered into the bequest in remainder to the defendants. The fact that Ann Smith and Eleonora Cummings Robison died before the testator, whereby the legacy to them lapsed altogether, is not material, because, if property be limited upon the death of one person to another, and the first donee happen to predecease the testator, the gift over would, of course, take effect, notwithstanding the failure, by lapse, of the prior gift. And this applies also whether the gift over of the legacy or share is to take effect on the death of the prior legatee generally, or on the death under particular circumstances, and whether the legacy be immediate or in remainder. It was so held in Willing v. Baine, 3 P. Wms. 113, where the bequest was to A., but if he died under 21, to B.

In Humberstone v. Stanton, 1 Ves. & B. 388, it was said: 'It seems formerly to have been a question whether a bequest over, in case of the death of the legatee before a certain period, could take effect where he died during the testator's life, though before the period specified. In the case of Willing v. Baine, legacies were given to children, payable at their respective ages of twenty-one; and if any of them died before that age, the legacy given to the person so dying to go to the survivors. One having died under twenty-one in the life of the testator, it was contended that his legacy lapsed, and did not go over to the survivors.' The argument was that the bequest over could not take place, as 'there can be no legacy unless the legatee survives the testator, the will not speaking until then; wherefore this must only be intended where the legatee survives the testator, so that the legacy vests in him, and then he dies before his age of 21. It was, however, held, and is now settled, that in such a case the bequest over takes place.' It follows, therefore, that unless it appear on the face of the will that the gift to the defendants was not intended to take effect unless the prior gift to Ann Smith and Eleonora Cummings Robison took effect, the former must be considered as taking effect in place of and as a substitute or the prior gift which, by reason of the contingency, has failed.

The scheme and intention, therefore, of the present will seems to us, considering the third and fourth subdivisions together, to be this: An estate for life to the testator's widow; an estate over for life to Ann Smith and Eleonora Cummings Robison, contingent on one of them surviving the widow, with the ultimate remainder in fee as to the real estate, and absolutely as to the personalty, in the defendants. The language of the contingency in the fourth clause, in our opinion, affects only the intermediate life-estate of Ann Smith and Eleonora Cummings Robison; it being, we think, the plain intention of the testator to give to his widow the estate in question only for her life, and not to die intestate as to any portion of the estate, and to limit the contingency only to the gift to Ann Smith and Eleonora Cummings obison. It is true that the ultimate gift to the defendants is described as commencing 'at their death,' that is, at the death of Ann Smith and Eleonora Commings Robison; but that language is evidently used only as indicating the expectation of the testator, which he would naturally indulge, that the beneficiaries named would live to receive the gift intended. Certainly, those words are not to be construed so as to require that the gift to the defendants shall take effect at the death of Ann Smith and Eleonora Cummings Robison, irrespectively of the prior decease of the widow. The limitations in the tow subdivisions of the will are to be taken in connection with each other as a complete disposition in the mind of the testator of his estate, giving to the widow an estate for life, with an estate over for life to Ann Smith and Eleonora Cummings Robison, contingent upon one or the other of them surviving the widow, with the ultimate remainder to the defendants.

The decree of the circuit court is accordingly affirmed.

NotesEdit

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).