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DE VAUGHN v. HUTCHINSON, 165 U.S. 566 (1897)

U.S. Supreme Court

DE VAUGHN v. HUTCHINSON, 165 U.S. 566 (1897)

165 U.S. 566

DE VAUGHN et al.
No. 114.

March 1, 1897

Samuel De Vaughn, a resident of the District of Columbia, died on the 5th day of July, 1867, leaving a last will and [165 U.S. 566, 567]   testament dated April 20, 1861. This will was admitted to probate September 1, 1867, and was, as to those of its provisions which are involved in the present litigation, as follows:

Martha Ann Mitchell, one of the devisees named in the will, died in the year 1866, before the death of the testator, Samuel De Vaughn, leaving, as her only children and heirs at law, Benjamin D. Mitchell, Richard R. Mitchell, and Sarah W. Hutchinson. Mrs. Susan Brayfield, the tenant for life, died in December, 1891.

In May, 1892, James H. De Vaughn, Emily De Vaughn, and Rebecca J. Kirk, as heirs at law of Samuel De Vaughn, brought, in the supreme court of the District of Columbia, a bill in equity against William H. De Vaughn and others, also heirs at law of Samuel De Vaughn. The purpose of the bill was to have a declaration that, by reason of the decease of Martha Ann Mitchell during the lifetime of the testator, the devise to her lapsed and became void, and that thereupon, upon the death of the testator and of Susan Brayfield, the real estate described in said devises became vested in the heirs at law of the said testator, as if the said testator had died intestate as to said real estate; and, upon such declaration, that the said real estate should be sold, and the proceeds of such sale should be distributed among the parties lawfully entitled thereto, as heirs at law of the said Samuel De Vaughn.

To this bill appeared Benjamin D. V. Mitchell and others, the children of the said Martha Ann Mitchell, who were living at the death of the said testator, and who filed a demurrer to said bill. Upon argument in the supreme court of the District of Columbia, the demurrer was sustained, and, the complainants electing to stand on their said bill, a final decree was entered, dismissing the bill, and awarding an account of rents and profits.

From this decree an appeal was taken to the general term, but the cause was thereafter transferred to and heard in the court of appeals of the District of Columbia, and on April 2, 1894, the decree of the supreme court was affirmed. From the decree of the court of appeals an appeal was duly prayed and allowed to this court. [165 U.S. 566, 570]   H. O. Claughton, for appellants.

J. M. Wilson, for appellees.

Mr. Justice SHIRAS, after stating the facts in the foregoing language, delivered the opinion of the court.

It is a principle firmly established that to the law of the state in which the land is situated we must look for the rules which govern its descent, alienation, and transfer, and for the effect and construction of wills and other conveyances. U. S. v. Crosby, 7 Cranch, 115; Clark v. Graham, 6 Whear. 577; McGoon v. Scales, 9 Wall. 23; Brine v. Insurance Co., 96 U.S. 627 .

Accordingly, in the present case, we are relieved from a consideration of the innumerable cases in which the courts in England and in the several states of this Union have dealt with the origin and application of the rule in Shelley's Case. We have only to do with that famous rule as expounded and applied by the courts of Maryland while the land in question formed part of the territory of that state, and to further inquire whether, since the cession of the lands forming the District of Columbia, there has been any change in the law by legislation of congress.

We learn from the reported cases that the rule, as established in the jurisprudence of England before the American Revolution, was introduced into Maryland as part of the common law, and has been constantly recognized and enforced by the courts of that state. Horne v. Lyeth, 4 Har . & J. 435; Ware v. Richardson, 3 Md. 505; Shreve v. Shreve, 43 Md. 382; Dickson v. Satterfield, 53 Md. 317; Holstead v. Hall, 60 Md. 209.

But we also learn from those cases and other Maryland cases that might be cited that, though the rule is recognized as one of property, yet if there are explanatory and qualifying expressions, from which it appears that the im- [165 U.S. 566, 571]   port of the technical language is contrary to the clear and plain intent of the testator, the former must yield, and the latter will prevail.

Thus, in the case of Shreve v. Shreve, 43 Md. 382, where there was a devise to named children of the testator, for and during their natural lives, and on the death of said children, or either of them, to his or her issue lawfully begotten, and their heirs or assigns, forever, it was held that the word 'issue,' used in the clause cited, was a word of purchase; and in the opinion it was said: 'Again, there are words of limitation superadded to the gift to the issue; it is to them and their heirs forever. Now, in the wellknown case of Luddington v. Kime, 1 Ld. Raym. 203, the devise was in very nearly the same terms, viz. to A. for life without impeachment of waste, and, in case he should leave any issue male, then to such issue male and his heirs, forever, with a limitation over in default of such issue; and the court held the testator intended the word 'issue' should be designatio personae, and not a word of limitation, 'because he added a further limitation to the issue, viz. and to the heirs of such issue forever.' The principle deduced from this case is thus stated in 6 Cruise, Dig. (3d Am. Ed.) p. 259: 'Where an estate is devised to a person for life, with remainder to his issue, with words of limitation added, the word 'issue' will in that case be construed to be a word of purchase."

The court, in Shreve v. Shreve, took notice of the fact that the case of Luddington v. Kime has been doubted, particularly by Powell in his learned work on Devises, but the Maryland court adds:

After this repeated and recent recognition by our predecessors of this rule of construction derived from Luddington v. Kime, and other like cases in the earlier English reports, we are constrained to hold that it applies to and governs that part of that clause of this will which we have thus far considered, even though we may be of opinion a different construction would be given to it by the courts of England. Having thus determined the word 'issue' is here used as a word of purchase, it is clear it must bear the same construction when used in the immediately following sentence, 'and, if any of said children shall die without issue lawfully begotten, I give, devise, and bequeath his or her portion to the surviving child or children and their issue, and to the heirs of said issue, forever.' In other words, the portion given to each child for life goes, in case he dies without leaving children, in the same way as the orininal share; that is, to the surviving children for life, and upon their death to their issue in fee.'

We have extracted such large portions of the opinion in this case of Shreve v. Shreve because it plainly shows that the will before us in the present case would have been construed by the supreme court of the state of Maryland as creating a life estate only in Martha Ann Mitchell, and an estate in fee in the heirs of her body begotten. It is true that the words in Shreve v. Shreve were 'issue lawfully begotten,' but the case of Horne v. Lythe, 4 Har. & J. 435, is approved, where the words 'the heirs of her body lawfully to be begotten' were similarly construed.

In Clark v. Smith, 49 Md. 117, the court, by Alvey, J., stated the rule as follows:

Though these decisions were made since the lands in question in this case became part of the District of Columbia, yet their reasoning is based upon the history of the law in Maryland ever since that state became independent; and we are therefore warranted in the conclusion that the law as laid down in the cited cases was the law when the state of Maryland ceded to the United States the territory now embraced in the city of Washington and District of Columbia.

It is not claimed that there has been any legislation by the congress of the United States which has modified or changed the law in this particular as it was when the lands in question were subject to the law of Maryland.

Nor do we find that there has been any attempt tempt by the courts of the District to lay down a different rule. What is the law of those courts we learn from the opinion of the court of appeals filed in this case, reported in 3 App. Cas. D. C. 50, where the doctrine was thus stated:

The case of Daniel v. Whartenby, 17 Wall. 639, was cited by the court below, and is discussed in the briefs of the respective counsel. The syllabus of the case is as follows:

This case came up on a writ of error to the circuit court of the United States for the district of Delaware, and it is noticeable that the reasoning of this court did not proceed upon the law as expounded by the courts of that state, but rather upon a general view of the English and American cases. Still, as the judgment of the circuit court was [165 U.S. 566, 577]   affirmed, we may well suppose that the conclusion reached in this court was in conformity with the law as applied in the state of Delaware.

The rule extracted from the cases was thus stated by Mr. Justice Swayne:

And, after examining the language used, the conclusion was thus expressed:

We agree with the court below that the reasoning of the case of Daniel v. Whartenby, if applicable to the present case, would sustain the construction put upon the will of Samuel De Vaughn by the supreme Court of the District.

But, even if that case be regarded as declaratory only of the law of Delaware, its principles were followed and applied in the subsequent case of Green v. Green, 23 Wall. 486, involving the construction of a conveyance of lands situated in the District of Columbia, and where the cases of Daniel v. Whartenby, supra, [165 U.S. 566, 578]   and Ware v. Richardson, 3 Md. 505, were both approved.

We therefore think it clear that, under the law as declared in the courts of Maryland and of the District of Columbia, Martha Ann Mitchell took a life estate only, and that her children took an estate in fee.

In the view that we have taken of the case, we are not called upon to re-inforce the reasoning of the cases cited, but we shall add a single observation, in application of Chancellor Kent's statement of an exception to the rule. 4 Kent, Comm. (6th Ed.) 221. The word 'heirs,' in order to be a word of limitation, must include all the persons in all generations belonging to the class designated by the law as 'heirs.' But the devise here was to Martha Ann for life, and at her decease to her heirs begotten of her body, and to their heirs and assigns,-a restricted class of heirs, and this limitation shows that it was the intention of the testator that Martha Ann's children should become the root of a new succession, and take as purchasers, and not as heirs.

The decree of the court below is affirmed.

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