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UNTERMEHLE V. NORMENT, 197 U. S. 40 (1905)

U.S. Supreme Court

Untermehle v. Norment, 197 U.S. 40 (1905)

Untermehle v. Norment

No. 63

Argued November 28-29, 1904

Decided February 20, 1905

197 U.S. 40


Mere ignorance of the law, standing alone, does not constitute any defense against its enforcement, and 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 the mistake.

The rule of law is that a party taking a benefit of a provision in his favor under a will is estopped from attacking the validity of the instrument, and where an heir at law has taken a benefit under the will, acquiesced in its validity for many years, permitted the legatees and devisees to act upon such consent and acquiescence, has so changed his position on that account that he cannot be restored to it, and meanwhile witnesses have died, this estoppel is not affected because he was at the time ignorant of this rule of law.

The plaintiff in error seeks by this writ to review the judgment of the Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia, 22 App.D.C. 31, affirming the decree of the Supreme Court of that District, sitting as a court of probate, admitting the will of George W. Utermehle to probate as a will of real estate, by virtue of the jurisdiction conferred upon the court by the Act of Congress of June 8, 1898. 30 Stat. 434, c. 394. The same will had been admitted to probate in the District in the year 1889 as a will of personalty (which was all the jurisdiction at that time possessed by the court), with the concurrence and consent of the plaintiff in error. The facts upon which the case hinges are in substance the following:

George W. Utermehle, the testator, died in the City of Washington on the sixteenth day of April, 1889, leaving a large amount of real and personal property, the real estate amounting, as is said, to about a million dollars, and the personalty to between six hundred thousand and a million of dollars. He left a will, bearing date December 7, 1887, which

Page 197 U. S. 41

appeared on its face to have been duly executed for the conveyance of real estate. The testator left him surviving his widow, two daughters -- Mrs. Taylor and Mrs. Norment -- and the plaintiff in error, his grandson, the son of his deceased son, as his sole heirs at law and next of kin. The widow was named executrix of the will, and she propounded the same for probate April 26, 1889. It was duly admitted to probate on that day, on the petition of the widow, as executrix, with the written consent of the daughters and the plaintiff in error. The executrix gave a bond in the sum of $20,000 for the payment of all just debts and claims against the deceased, and for the payment of the legacies bequeathed by the will, and letters were issued to her. She duly administered upon the estate, paid the funeral expenses and other charges, and the legacies mentioned in the will, including that to the plaintiff in error. She filed no inventory, but made a statement of account on the fourteenth day of May, 1890. The personal property, except such as was otherwise disposed of under the will and in payment of debts and legacies, she retained for herself, as sole and absolute owner, in accordance with the terms of the will. Of this amount it is said that she thereafter disposed of a large part in charities. By the will of George W. Utermehle, he bequeathed to each of his three nieces, residing in Germany, the sum of $3,000; he devised to his grandson, the plaintiff in error, the property known as the Young Law Building, in Washington; he also bequeathed to him the interest due or to become due on a note for $750, secured on a lot in Washington, and also the principal of the same; he bequeathed to his wife, Sarah Utermehle, all the rest of his personal property, of every kind, to be taken by her in lieu of dower, and to be disposed of by her by deed, will, or otherwise, as she pleased; he devised to her his then present residence and the property adjoining, being square 765 in the City of Washington; he then bequeathed all the rest and residue of his real estate, wherever situated, and all the real estate of which he might die seized and possessed, other than

Page 197 U. S. 42

that already devised, to his two daughters, Mamie Norment and Rosa Taylor, as tenants in common, share and share alike; he appointed his wife sole executrix of his will, and revoked all other wills theretofore made by him; he suggested that, as he had no debts, and his personal estate was to go to his wife, a very moderate bond should be required of her as executrix.

After the death of his grandfather, the plaintiff was present at his late residence and heard this will read.

Immediately after the reading of the will, he left the house, but Mrs. Taylor, one of his aunts, as he was leaving, asked him to come over the next day, which he did. He testified on this trial that he arrived at the house and went into the dining room, and Mrs. Taylor, Mrs. Norment, and his grandmother were there. Mrs. Taylor did the talking, and started the conversation by stating to the plaintiff in error that the will had virtually cut him off, and that, if it had not been for her and the Doctor (her husband), the plaintiff in error would not have been left the property called the Young Law Building; but that they had had his grandfather paint it up and put it in repair, so that, when it came into his possession it would not be any expense to him to put it in condition at the time. She further said that his grandmother was left all the personal property, which amounted to almost, if not quite as much, as that which they (his aunts) would receive under the will, and that, when his grandmother died she proposed to make him right -- to make him equal with them by equalizing his share; that his grandmother wanted to know what the mortgage on his farm was, as she understood that there was a mortgage; that she wanted to pay it off; that she wanted to start him off without any debts on him. His grandmother was sitting there at the time, but said nothing. He was asked what the mortgage was on his farm. He told them $11,500. The only remarks made were those between Mrs. Taylor (his aunt) and himself, and the only statement he made was what the mortgage on the farm was. He also testified on the trial

Page 197 U. S. 43

below that he believed what was then promised him, as to what his grandmother would do when she made her will; that he had no doubt whatever that she would fulfill her promise. His grandmother told him at that interview she would give him a check for the mortgage in a few days, and he then went home. Subsequently, and on the twenty-sixth day of April, 1889, he signed the consent to the probate of the will. He did it in reliance, as he said, upon the promise above mentioned.

From the time of the probate of his grandfather's will up to the time of the death of his grandmother, he did nothing to attack the will of his grandfather, but relied upon the promise made by or on the part of his grandmother, the day after the funeral. After the probate of his grandfather's will, he received from his grandmother, as the executrix, the legacy spoken of therein, and gave receipt therefor; he also took possession of the real estate given him by the will, called Young's Law Building, and received the rents therefor for nearly two years, and (on March 24, 1891) sold it for $20,000, and kept the proceeds. The sisters took the real estate devised to them by the will. They commenced an action of partition, and the real estate was partitioned between them, and each thereafter treated the real estate set off to her under the partition as her own absolute property. Some of it they conveyed and disposed of so that it passed beyond their control. They assumed and supposed that the real estate given to them in the will was their own, as the plaintiff in error had consented to the probate of the will, and had made no objections whatever since that time to its validity, or questioned it in any way.

On the thirteenth of March, 1893, the grandmother died, leaving a will dated July 5, 1889, less than three months after the promise alleged to have been made by her, or in her behalf, to the plaintiff in error immediately after the funeral of his grandfather. The will of the grandmother was admitted to probate, by the consent of all the parties interested, on the

Page 197 U. S. 44

seventeenth day of March, 1893. The two daughters were executrices under the will, but, on objection being made by the plaintiff in error to their receiving commissions, they waived their right to them, and performed the services without pay. By the terms of this will, the two aunts and the plaintiff in error were made to share equally in the estate of the grandmother, which turned out to amount to something over $200,000, the grandmother having, during her lifetime, as is stated, disposed of a large amount of the personal property bequeathed to her under the will of her husband, in charities. When the terms of the will of the grandmother were read to the plaintiff in error, he testified on the trial below that he then said,

"So far as I am concerned I have got the worst of and I have got to stand it. I never made but one mistake in my life, and that was when I held still once before, and now I have to stand still."

He received under the will of his grandmother $84,256.87, being the same share as was received by each of his aunts. He received, under the will of his grandfather and that of his grandmother a total of between $140,000 and $150,000. After the death of his grandmother, he took no steps showing an intention to contest the will of either, until May 19, 1900, which was ten years after the settlement of the estate of his grandfather, and nearly seven years after the settlement of the estate of his grandmother. On the date named, he addressed two letters of the same tenor, one to Mrs. Taylor and the other to Mrs. Norment, in which he states that he had been under a misapprehension and was ignorant regarding his rights at the time his grandfather died, and that misrepresentations had been made to him from those interested, touching his rights and interest in his grandfather's estate, and he therefore notified them that he denied the validity of the paper writing alleged to be the last will and testament of his grandfather, which had been admitted to probate as a will of personal property, and stated that he contended that the alleged will had never been operative in connection with the real property,

Page 197 U. S. 45

and that his claim to the building and ground known as Young's Law Building was merely a one-third interest in the property as tenant in common with the other heirs at law of his deceased grandfather; he also stated that he held himself ready to account, upon demand, to his two aunts for the one-third interest to which each was entitled in that real estate, as two of the heirs at law of his grandfather, in both the property and the rents and profits from the same, from his grandfather's death; that he held himself as ready, upon demand, to make proper settlement with both of his aunts for the $750 note, with the accrued interest thereon, which had been all paid, and was pretended to have been bequeathed to him under the will of his grandfather. Plaintiff in error testified that he did not receive any answer to either letter, nor any communication from either of his aunts, and soon thereafter he instituted a suit in ejectment, and on June 9, 1900, filed a caveat in the probate court against the validity of the will, as a will of personalty. The plaintiff in error there charged that the will was procured by the fraud, undue influence, and duress of Mrs. Taylor and her husband, and that the testator had no testamentary capacity when the paper was signed by him. Mrs. Taylor and Mrs. Norment answered this caveat, and at the same time filed a petition asking for probate of the will of their father, of December 7, 1887, as a will of real estate, under the act of Congress of June 8, 1898, above mentioned. To this petition the plaintiff in error made answer.

Pending proceedings in the probate court on this caveat of the plaintiff in error, and the petition for the probate of the will as one of real estate, Mrs. Taylor, one of the aunts, died, January 22, 1901, leaving a will by which she devised all of her estate and property to her husband, subject to the annuity to her son, and nominated her husband as executor. This will was duly admitted to probate on the eighteenth day of March, 1901, and letters testamentary were issued to Dr. Taylor (the husband). Thereupon he filed his petition in these

Page 197 U. S. 46

proceedings, wherein he stated that the property devised and bequeathed to him by his wife was in fact to be held in trust by him for the benefit of his son and his children, with the reservation of certain rights and powers for himself, and he asked that the parties named by him be made parties to the present proceedings in place of Mrs. Taylor, and they were accordingly made such.

The court then determined that issues should be formulated between the parties to be tried in the probate court with a jury, under the Act of June 8, 1898, and there were six issues thus drawn. The first was in regard to the question whether the plaintiff in error was estopped to deny the validity of his grandfather's will as a will of personal property; the second, whether he was estopped to deny its validity as one disposing of real property; third, was a question as to the testamentary capacity of the grandfather; the fourth, whether there was undue influence; fifth, whether there was fraud in obtaining the will from the grandfather, and sixth, whether there was duress.

It was stipulated that the question of the application of the statute of limitations, which was raised by the caveats and petitions, and all other questions, should be reserved for future determination by the court. Charles H. Utermehle was made plaintiff for the purpose of the trial, and all the other parties were made defendants. On March 17, 1902, a jury was impaneled and the trial commenced. The plaintiff proceeded to give his testimony, addressed to the question of estoppel and to an explanation of his delay in asserting his alleged rights. When the counsel for plaintiff in error announced their testimony on the question of estoppel closed, they were about to proceed with their testimony on the other issues, but counsel for the defendants objected, and asked the court to direct a verdict against the plaintiff on the issue of estoppel, and against the plaintiff upon all the other issues. After consideration, the court instructed the jury to render a verdict against the plaintiff on each and all the issues, and a verdict

Page 197 U. S. 47

was thus rendered and recorded. Thereupon an order or decree was rendered affirming the decree of April 26, 1889, admitting the grandfather's will to probate as and for a will of personalty, and also admitting it now to probate as and for a will of real estate, under the act of Congress of 1898. The Court of Appeals having affirmed this decree, the case has come to us by writ of error on the part of the plaintiff.

Page 197 U. S. 52

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