It is true that the plaintiff in error has received out of the estates of his grandfather and grandmother only between the sum of $140,000 and $150,000, while an equal division of the estate of his grandfather, between himself and his aunts, would have given him a much larger sum. What was the reason, if any, for this discrimination, the record does not show.
When the will of his grandfather was read the plaintiff in error was perfectly aware of its contents. He was a young man, nearly twenty-four years of age, married, and there is no proof that he was not of ordinary intelligence and capacity. There is no pretense in the evidence that there was any fraud or misrepresentation connected with obtaining his consent to the probate of the will, without opposition or contest on his part. By his own statement he understood distinctly from one of his aunts, after the reading of the will, that it substantially cut him off; that he would receive under the will a devise of the Young Law Building, worth about $20,000, and a bequest of the note of $750 and accrued interest, amounting to not quite $3,000, and that that was all that was given him under the will. He knew it when the will was read. There is not a particle of evidence that he did not know that, if there had been fraud or undue influence or duress in obtaining the alleged will from his grandfather, or if the latter was without testamentary capacity, such will would be void. The trial court, indeed, observed that he admitted he knew what his legal rights were at the time of the death of his grandfather, if there were no will. He was ignorant only of any evidence on which to base a contest against the proof of the will. He says he did not know at that time that fraud or undue influence or duress had been exercised, in order to obtain the will, nor did he know that his grandfather lacked testamentary capacity to execute a will, but there is no evidence whatever
"It is impossible to tell from the record before us whether they (the aunts of plaintiff in error) fared any better with the will than they would have fared without it; but it is very evident that by the bequest of the entire personalty by the will to their mother, they lost a valuable interest to which they cannot now be restored. It is impossible to restore the original situation, and the attempt to do so would be to wantonly question titles that have long since accrued, including the very title which the caveator has himself disposed of to the Young Law Building."
Of the witnesses to the grandfather's will, two are dead
We have, therefore, his consent given in April, 1889, to the probate of the will of his grandfather; his taking the legacy provided for under that will; his taking possession of the real estate devised to him by that will; his receipt of its rents and profits, and his subsequent sale thereof for $20,000, and the retention of that sum for his own purposes; his consent to the probate of his grandmother's will, although it clearly does not fulfill the promise he alleges was made on her behalf after the death and funeral of his grandfather; no movement is made on his part or sign of discontent given for about seven years thereafter, and then he writes letters and files his caveat and proceeds, as already stated. We have the total lack of diligence in the attempt even to ascertain facts. After his grandmother's death he says that he was still ignorant of the facts which he alleges he has since discovered of the existence of fraud in obtaining the will from his grandfather, and of the latter's lack of testamentary capacity, and the existence of duress and undue influence under which the will was obtained; and he also avers that he was ignorant of the law at the time that he consented to the probate of his grandfather's will that he could not take a devise or bequest under that will, and at the same time seek to prevent its probate or to set it aside as an invalid instrument. The trial court found that right after
The plaintiff in error asserts that he gave consent to the probate of his grandfather's will because of the promise of his grandmother to rectify by her will the injustice resulting from the will of his grandfather, and when he found that the promise was broken, on reading the will of his grandmother after her decease, he then waited seven years before proceeding to attack the will of his grandfather, admitted to probate in 1889. The Court of Appeals doubted the existence of the promise, and said it was probably only a promise that he should share equally in his grandmother's estate, which his grandmother fully performed. He says that after the death of his grandmother he was very ill for six weeks, and that for two years he was not in good health, and that he remained ignorant of the fraud and undue influence and duress and mental incapacity of his grandfather until a short time before the filing of the caveat or the writing of the letters. He does not contend that if these facts existed, he did not know that, if proved, they would avoid the will.
He insists, however, that the law pertaining to the taking of a legacy or devise under a will, which prevents the assertion of the invalidity of the same will, ought not to bind him, because he was ignorant that such was the law; in other words, the law should not cover his case because he was ignorant that it was the law.
We know of no case where mere ignorance of the law, standing alone, constitutes any excuse or defense against its enforcement. It would be impossible to administer the law if ignorance of its provisions were a defense thereto. There are cases, undoubtedly, where ignorance of the law, united with fraudulent conduct on the part of others, or mistakes of fact relating thereto, will be regarded as a defense, but there must be some element, other than a mere mistake of law, which will afford an excuse. In addition there ought to be no negligence
It has been held from the earliest days, in both the Federal and state courts, that a mistake of law, pure and simple, without the addition of any circumstances of fraud or misrepresentation, constitutes no basis for relief at law or in equity, and forms no excuse in favor of the party asserting that he made such mistake. Hunt v. Rousmaniere's Adm., 1 Pet. 1, 15; Bank of the United States v. Daniel, 12 Pet. 32, 55; United States v. Hodson, 10 Wall. 379, 409; Lamborn v. County Commissioners, 97 U.S. 181, 185; Snell v. Insurance Co., 98 U.S. 85, 90, 92; Allen v. Galloway, 30 Fed. Rep. 466, where Hammond, J., in reviewing the decisions of this court, says: "Whatever rule may prevail elsewhere, there can be, in the equity courts of the United States, no relief from a mistake of law." Drake v. Wild, 70 Vermont, 52, 59; in that case the court said
Exceptional cases where relief has been given have been, as stated, where there was fraud or imposition upon the individual by the person seeking to avail himself of the contract of the other party. In this case there was, as we have said, neither fraud nor imposition, nor misrepresentation; plaintiff in error was not advised that, although he took under the will, he could attack it. It is a simple, bald case of an alleged mistake or misapprehension, on the part of plaintiff, of what the law was under certain circumstances, with no representation or persuasion on the part of others to cause him to act upon such mistaken assumption.
As to what is the law relating to a party taking the benefit of a provision in his favor under a will, there is really no foundation to dispute the proposition that he thereby is precluded from at the same time attacking the validity of the very instrument under which he received the benefit.
In Hyde v. Baldwin, 17 Pick. 303, 308, it was held that one who accepted the beneficial interest under a will was thereby barred from setting up any claim which would defeat the full operation of the will. Drake v. Wild, 70 Vermont, 52, holds the same doctrine. In that case a party was held to be estopped from asserting her title to a trust fund disposed of by the will, because she had accepted the provisions of the will in her own favor. In Bronsan v. Watkins, 96 Georgia, 54, it
When in addition to the fact that he took a benefit under the will, a party has acquiesced in its validity for many years, and the opposing party in interest has acted upon such consent and acquiescence, and has so changed his position on that account that he cannot be restored to it, and where witnesses have in the meantime died, the reason for the rule upon which an estoppel is founded is thereby greatly strengthened.
Two cases, among others, were cited by counsel for plaintiff in error, in the court below, and are referred to in the opinion of the Court of Appeals, and they are also cited here for the purpose of showing his right to maintain these proceedings to set aside the will of his grandfather. They are: Spread v. Morgan, 11 H.L. Cases, 587, decided in 1864; Watson v. Watson, 128 Massachusetts, 152, decided in 1878.
We think the case has no application to the one at bar, and is well distinguished in the opinion of the Court of Appeals in this case.
In Watson v. Watson, supra, the general doctrine that any person taking a beneficial interest under a will, thereby confirmed it and could not set up any right or claim of his own, which would defeat or in any way prevent the full operation of every part of the will, was recognized and affirmed, but it was said (page 155):
"An election made in ignorance of material facts is, of course, not binding, when no other person's rights have been affected thereby. So, if a person, though knowing the facts, has acted in misapprehension of his legal rights, and in ignorance of his obligation to make an election, no intention to elect, and consequently no election, is to be presumed."
Regarding the legatee who took a legacy under the will, the court continued (at p. 157) as follows:
"But as to Edward the case stands differently. Immediately after being informed of the rule of law, little more than a year after the probate of the will, and before the executor had settled any account in the Probate Court, or the position of any other person had been changed, he returned his legacy to the executor, and gave him notice that he elected not to take it. He cannot therefore be held to have made such an election as should deprive him of the right under his independent title to partition of the whole estate, not excepting the parcel claimed by respondent."
We are of opinion the case has been rightly decided, and the judgment of the Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia is