No. 63.

197 U.S. 40 (1905)


Supreme Court of United States.

Decided February 20, 1905.

Attorney(s) appearing for the Case

Mr. D.W. Baker and Mr. Wilton J. Lambert for plaintiff in error.

Mr. A.S. Worthington, with whom Mr. T. Percy Woodward was on the brief, for defendants in error.

MR. JUSTICE PECKHAM, after making the foregoing statement, delivered the opinion of the court.

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 that any means were used or representation made to prevent him from ascertaining what the facts really were. The reason for his not contesting was, as he said, his reliance on the promise alleged to have been made by or on behalf of his grandmother to make him equal by her own will. On account of this promise he did not contest the will. By reason of his consent, his aunts, the other heirs at law of his grandfather, proceeded to make partition of the real estate given to them by the will, and to use, convey and dispose of it as if it were absolutely their own property. His grandmother received the personal property bequeathed to her by the will and disposed of large amounts of it prior to her death by gifts to charity and otherwise. It would be impossible to place the other heirs in the same position that they were in at the time of the death of the grandfather. The two aunts, if that will had not been proved, would have received their share of the personalty instead of almost the whole of it going to the mother. Under the will, however, the mother took the personalty and spent or disposed of large portions of it, so that she died possessed of only about $200,000, and the two aunts and the plaintiff in error have received an equal share of that sum. The aunts would have received a much larger share of the personalty had it not been for the will of their father. As is stated by the Court of Appeals in the opinion delivered in this case:

"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 and the third paralyzed. From the date of the probate of the grandfather's will in April, 1889, down to nineteenth of May, 1900, the plaintiff in error took no steps towards a contest. On that date he wrote the letters to his aunts, above referred to, and therein he says that misrepresentations were made to him as to his rights or his interest in the estate. We find a total absence of all proof as to any such misrepresentations, either as to his rights or his interest in the estate of his grandfather. The trial court also found that the plaintiff in error had not exhibited even reasonable diligence to learn any facts as to the will of his grandfather, and that his alleged ignorance of the law was the only excuse which had the semblance of sufficiency.

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 death of his grandmother he had the advice of counsel, and if he had been ignorant of any rights he would have been informed of the same.

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 in attempting to discover the facts. The ignorance of the plaintiff in error as to his alleged rights, it would seem, was an ignorance of the existence of alleged facts regarding the procurement of the will of his grandfather, but he does not pretend that, had he known of their existence, he was ignorant of their effect as a ground for refusing probate of the alleged will. The ignorance of evidence to substantiate what he knew were his rights is a very different thing from ignorance of the rights themselves, as is stated so clearly by the Court of Appeals; and so it appears in this case that the only obstacle to the enforcement of the rule of estoppel rests in the alleged ignorance of the plaintiff in error that such a rule existed. Although his action in consenting to the probate of the will of his grandfather was not the result of fraud or misrepresentation, and the other parties to this litigation cannot be placed back in the position they occupied when the will was admitted to probate, and this condition is the result of the action of the plaintiff in error in consenting to the probate of the will, yet he now contends, notwithstanding all this, that he must be permitted, after the lapse of eleven years, to attempt to defeat the will of his grandfather because he did not know the law applicable to the case in hand. This is a totally inadmissible proposition.

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 (p. 59): "That ignorance of the law does not excuse a wrong done or a right withheld: That relief from liabilities under the law, arising from a known state of facts, will be denied. But to these general rules there are exceptions, as where there is a mistake of law caused by fraud, imposition or misrepresentation. We think it will be found that in most of the cases cited in these notes, and in Pomeroy, the party seeking relief was led into error by the action of the other party to a transaction, as in contracts and releases." Light v. Light, 21 Pa. St. 407, 412; Storrs v. Barker, 6 Johns. Ch. 166; Whitwell v. Winslow, 134 Massachusetts, 343, 345; Alabama &c. Railway v. Jones, 73 Mississippi, 110; S.C., 55 Am. St. Rep. 488, note.

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 was held that one who took an estate under a will was thereby estopped from at the same time denying its validity as a will, or from questioning the jurisdiction of the court admitting it to probate, or the regularity of the probate proceedings. In Smith v. Smith, 14 Gray, 532, it was held that the acceptance of a devise estops the devisee to set up a title in opposition to the will, at law as well as in equity. In Fry v. Morrison, 159 Illinois, 244, it was held that one who took a beneficial interest under a will was thereby estopped to set up any right or claim of his own, though otherwise well founded, which would bar or defeat the effect of any part of the will. And in Madison v. Larmon, 170 Illinois, 65, 82, it was again held that one who takes under a will cannot contest it as an heir at law of the devised property. So, in Fisher v. Boyce, 81 Maryland, 46, 53, the court said: "It is a maxim in a court of equity not to permit the same person to hold under and against a will. . . . It is equally appropriate to the jurisdiction and practice of courts of law. If the appellees claim under the will of their father, they must give it effect as far as they can, and they will then be estopped from denying its validity and genuineness. Waters' Appeal, 35 Pa. St. 523; Thrower v. Wood, 53 Georgia, 458."

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.

In the English case it was held that one remaining in possession of two estates, under titles not consistent with each other, thereby afforded no decisive proof of an election under which title to take. It was there held that the rule was, "that if a party being bound to elect between two properties, not being called upon so to elect, continues in the receipt of the rents and profits of both, such receipt affording no proof of preference, cannot be an election to take the one, and reject the other."

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."

In this case the position of other parties to this litigation has most materially changed, as has already been shown (the particulars of which need not be repeated), while the plaintiff in error has been also guilty of extreme negligence even in attempting to discover what he alleges are facts. We are satisfied that the plaintiff in error is estopped from now contesting the will, and that great injustice would result from the overturning of the principle adjudged in so many cases.

We are of opinion the case has been rightly decided, and the judgment of the Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia is



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