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CAUJOLLE V. FERRIE, 80 U. S. 465 (1871)

U.S. Supreme Court

Caujolle v. Ferrie, 80 U.S. 13 Wall. 465 465 (1871)

Caujolle v. Ferrie

80 U.S. (13 Wall.) 465


A grant of letters of administration by a court having sole and exclusive power of granting them, and which by statute is obliged to grant them "to the relatives of the deceased, who would be entitled to succeed to his personal estate," is conclusive in other courts on a question of legitimacy, the grant having been made on an issue raised on the question of legitimacy alone, and there having been no question of minority, bad habits, alienage, or other disqualification simply personal.

Held accordingly, after a grant under such circumstances, that the legitimacy could not be gone into by the complainants on a bill for distribution by the persons who had opposed the grant of letters, against the person to whom they had been granted, but on the contrary that the complainants were estopped on that subject.

The Revised Statutes of New York, on the subject of granting letters of administration, thus enact:

"The surrogate of each county shall have sole and exclusive power within the county for which he may be appointed to grant letters of administration of the goods &c., of persons dying intestate -- when an intestate at or immediately previous to his death was an inhabitant of the county of such surrogate. [Footnote 1] "

Page 80 U. S. 466

"Administration, in case of intestacy, shall be granted to the relatives of the deceased, who would be entitled to succeed to his personal estate. [Footnote 2]"

By the further terms of the statute, the surplus of an intestate's personal estate remaining after payment of debts shall be distributed, if there be no husband or wife, equally to and among the children and such as legally represent them, or if there be no children and no representatives of a child, then the next of kin in equal degree to the deceased &c. [Footnote 3]

To secure a competent person, a large discretion is entrusted to the surrogate. He may exclude minors, aliens, intemperate persons &c.

With these provisions of the code in force, Jeanne Du Lux, a woman of French extraction, died November 15, 1854, at an advanced age in the City of New York, intestate, leaving a large personal estate, to be administered and distributed according to the laws of the place of her domicile.

Within a month of her decease, John Pierre Ferrie applied to the Surrogate of the County of New York for letters of administration on her estate, claiming them on the ground that he was her only child, and therefore her sole heir at law and next of kin. This application was opposed by the public administrator, an officer who, in the City of New York, is entitled to administer upon the estate of deceased persons where there are no next of kin, and the French consul was allowed to contest for the benefit of any party in interest in France. During the pendency of these proceedings, Benoit Julien Caujolle, Bert Barthelemy Caujolle, and Mauretta Elie, with their respective wives, appeared before the surrogate and asked to be heard, alleging that they were the next of kin, and for that reason, entitled to intervene in the matter of the administration, and "to share upon the distribution of the estate," and asking to receive their distributive share of the same. The prayer of their petition was granted, and after this was done, the French consul withdrew

Page 80 U. S. 467

from the contest. The only question involved in the application for administration was whether Ferrie was the legitimate child of Jeanne Du Lux, and all the proofs taken and admitted related to that issue alone. As Ferrie was conceded to have been born in France, a commission was issued to take testimony in that country regarding the real relationship he bore to the said Jeanne Du Lux. This commission was executed and returned to the surrogate, with a large mass of oral evidence on the subject, together with documents and extracts from public records.

The case came to a hearing on the 15th day of September, 1856, on the proofs taken in France and at home, and the surrogate rendered the following decree:

"In the matter of the Estate of Jeanne Du Lux, deceased."

"Upon taking proof of all the parties, who have appeared in this matter, and after hearing counsel in behalf of John Pierre Ferrie, claiming to be the son of the intestate, and counsel in behalf of the public administrator, in opposition thereto, and counsel in behalf of Benoit Julien Caujolle, Bert Barthelemy Caujolle, and Mauretta Elie, and their respective wives, claiming as next of kin of said intestate, it is ordered, adjudged, and decreed that letters of administration upon the estate of said Jeanne Du Lux be granted, and issue to the said John P. Ferrie, as the legitimate son and sole next of kin of the said intestate, or to said Ferrie, and such person as may be joined with him under the statute, on giving the proper security required by law."

An appeal was taken from this decree to the supreme court of the state by Benoit Julien Caujolle, acting for himself and the other persons in France, and the decree was affirmed. While the case was pending in the supreme court, on application of the appellant there, additional evidence was received, not heard by the surrogate, tending to show the illegitimacy of Ferrie. Notwithstanding this additional evidence, the decision of the surrogate was affirmed, and it was reaffirmed on a subsequent appeal to the Court of Appeals. It was on this final decision in his favor that administration of his mother's estate was granted to Ferrie.

Page 80 U. S. 468

In a short time after the decision against them in the highest court of the State of New York, the persons already named living in France who asserted themselves to be the next of kin of Jeanne Du Lux filed their bill against Ferrie and the person who had been joined with him under the statute in the court below for distribution.

To this bill the defendants pleaded in bar the decision of the state courts on the contest for administration, as an adjudication between the same parties of the very point in issue, by a tribunal having jurisdiction of the subject matter. This plea was overruled, and the cause, after answer, replication, and the taking of proofs, was heard on its merits, and the legitimacy of Ferrie again established. Appeal was taken to this Court by the other side from this decision. The record brought up the whole evidence on the question of legitimacy -- parol and documentary, French and American.

Page 80 U. S. 469

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