No. 260.

171 U.S. 466 (1898)


Supreme Court of United States.

Decided October 17, 1898.

Attorney(s) appearing for the Case

Mr. James P. Helm, Mr. Helm Bruce and Mr. Samuel B. Vance for the motion.

Mr. William Stone Abert, Mr. Charles H. Gibson, Mr. John Marshall and Mr. D.W. Sanders opposing.

MR. JUSTICE GRAY, after stating the case, delivered the opinion of the court.

The motion to dismiss must be overruled. An executor represents the person of the testator, and is charged with the duty of resisting unfounded claims against the fund in his hands. Co. Lit. 209a; McArthur v. Scott, 113 U.S. 340, 396. The record, therefore, does present the Federal question whether the right given by the act of Congress to the "legal representatives" of Charles M. Briggs was for the benefit of his next of kin to the exclusion of his creditors.

But we are of opinion that this question, which is the only Federal question in the case, must be answered in the negative, and consequently that the judgment of the Court of Appeals of Kentucky must be affirmed.

The primary and ordinary meaning of the words "representatives," or "legal representatives," or "personal representatives," when there is nothing in the context to control their meaning, is "executors or administrators," they being the representatives constituted by the proper court. In re Crawford's Trust, 2 Drewry, 230; In re Wyndham's Trusts, L.R. 1 Eq. 290; 2 Jarman on Wills, c. 29, § 5, (5th ed.) 957, 966; Williams on Executors, pt. 3, bk. 3, c. 2, § 2 (7), (9th ed.) 992; Cox v. Curwen, 118 Mass. 198; Halsey v. Patterson, 10 Stew (37 N.J. Eq.) 445.

In Stevens v. Bagwell, 15 Ves. 139, 152, a claim by the next of kin of a naval officer to the share awarded him in a prize condemned after his death, and ordered by treasury warrant to be paid to his "representatives," was rejected by Sir William Grant, who said that the intention of the Crown in all cases of this kind is to put what is in strictness matter of bounty upon the footing of matter of right, and not to exercise any kind of judgment or selection with regard to the persons to be ultimately benefited by the gift; that the representatives to whom the Crown gives are those who legally sustain that character; but the gift is made in augmentation of the estate, and is to be considered as if it had been actually part of the officer's property at the time of his death.

In this court, it is well settled that moneys received by the United States from a foreign government by way of indemnity for the destruction of American vessels, and granted by act of Congress to the owners of those vessels, without directing to whom payment shall be made in case of death or insolvency, pass to the assignees in bankruptcy for the benefit of the creditors of such owners, although such assignees have been appointed before the act of Congress making the grant. Comegys v. Vasse, 1 Pet. 193; Erwin v. United States, 97 U.S. 392; Williams v. Heard, 140 U.S. 529.

In Emerson v. Hall, 13 Pet. 409, cited by the plaintiff in error, in which money paid by the United States to the heirs at law, as "the legal representatives of William Emerson," under the act of March 3, 1831, c. 102, 6 Stat. 464, was held not to be assets in their hands for the payment of his creditors, the act, in its title, was expressed to be "for the relief of the heirs of William Emerson, deceased;" and it granted the money as a reward for services, meritorious indeed, but voluntarily rendered by Emerson, not under any law or contract, and imposing no obligation, legal or equitable, upon the government to compensate him therefor; and the money was therefore held to have been received by his heirs as a gift or pure donation.

In the provision of the appropriation act of March 3, 1891, c. 540, concerning the French Spoliation Claims, the words "personal representative" and "legal representative" were used to designate the executor or administrator of the original sufferer; and money awarded by the Court of Claims to such a representative was held by this court to belong to the next of kin, to the exclusion of assignees in bankruptcy, upon the ground that the act expressly so provided. 26 Stat. 897, 908. Blagge v. Balch, 162 U.S. 439.

The words "legal representatives" or "personal representatives" have also been used as designating executors or administrators, and not next of kin, in acts of Congress giving actions for wrongs or injuries causing death. Act of April 20, 1871, c. 22, § 6, 17 Stat. 15; Rev. Stat. § 1981; act of February 17, 1885, c. 126; 23 Stat. 307; Stewart v. Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, 168 U.S. 445, 449.

The act of June 4, 1888, c. 348, now before the court, is entitled "An act for the relief of the estate of C.M. Briggs, deceased," and confers upon the Court of Claims "jurisdiction to hear and determine the claim of the legal representatives of C.M. Briggs, deceased," for the proceeds, in the Treasury of the United States, of cotton owned by him. The only conditions which the act imposes upon the right of recovery are that the petition shall be filed in the Court of Claims within two years; that that court shall find that Briggs was in fact loyal to the United States, and that Morehead's assignment of the cotton to Briggs was made in good faith; and that if it shall find that the assignment "was intended only as security to said Briggs for indebtedness, and against contingent liabilities assumed by him for said Morehead, judgment shall be rendered for such portion of the proceeds of said cotton as will satisfy the debts and claims of said Briggs to secure which said assignment was given." The "debts and claims," in this last clause, manifestly include both classes of debts previously mentioned, namely, the direct "indebtedness" of Morehead to Briggs, and the "contingent liabilities assumed by him for said Morehead," including the claims of the defendants in error, specified in the written agreement executed by Briggs contemporaneously with the assignment, and the amount of each of which has been ascertained by the court below.

The act of Congress nowhere mentions heirs at law, or next of kin. Its manifest purpose is not to confer a bounty or gratuity upon any one; but to provide for the ascertainment and payment of a debt due from the United States to a loyal citizen for property of his, taken by the United States; and to enable his executor to recover, as part of his estate, proceeds received by the United States from the sale of that property. The act is "for the relief of the estate" of Charles M. Briggs, and the only matter referred to the Court of Claims is the claim of his "legal representatives." The executor was the proper person to represent the estate of Briggs, and was his legal representative; and as such he brought suit in the Court of Claims, and recovered the fund now in question, and consequently held it as assets of the estate, and subject to the debts and liabilities of his testator to the defendants in error.

Judgment affirmed.


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