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Lewis v. Searles

Law Dictionary

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Property Law Keyed to Cribbet

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Bloomberg Law

Citation. 22 Ill.452 S.W.2d 153 (Mo. 1970)

Brief Fact Summary. Plaintiff Hattie Lewis instituted this lawsuit to quiet title to certain real estate which was left to her under a provision of a will by Letitia G. Lewis (who was her aunt and owned the land). The provision of the will in question was that Plaintiff was to have the land by herself unless she married, in which case it was to be shared equally by Plaintiff and the late Letitia G. Lewis’ other niece Letitia LaForge and her nephew, James R. Lewis.

Synopsis of Rule of Law. The general rule is that a provision in a will which imposes a restraint against marriage is unenforceable, however, in this case it is clear that the intent of the testatrix (the late Letitia G. Lewis) was to support Plaintiff rather than penalize her for marrying, and as such, is valid. Also, the rule of construction of wills is to reach the whole of the will to determine the testatrix’s intent, and here the intent was to create a fee simple determinable subject to defeasance of two thirds in the event of marriage, and thus no life estate was created.

Facts. The Plaintiff Hattie Lewis filed a declaratory judgment suit seeking to have the title to certain real estate quieted in her in fee and, in the process, to have a will constructed. The will involved here is that of Letitia G. Lewis (Testatrix), who died in 1926 and her will was probated shortly thereafter. At the time of Testatrix’s death she left two surviving nieces (Plaintiff and one Letitia LaForge) and one surviving nephew (James R. Lewis). Under the provision of the will, Plaintiff was left “all of my real and personal property of which I may die seized and possessed, so long as she remains unmarried.” Further, the will stated that in the event Plaintiff married, that all the real and personal property be divided equally between Plaintiff and LaForge and Lewis, the result of which would be an undivided one-third interest in each of the three. At the time of the institution of the suit, around 1969, LaForge had died leaving three children, one of whom had died leaving chi
ldren. Also, the nephew Lewis had died leaving two sons, who entered their appearance to contest this suit. All the parties necessary to adjudication were duly summoned. The will was made by testatrix in 1911 when Plaintiff was 38 years old. The will was probated when Plaintiff was 53. The Plaintiff had never married. The trial court found that the Plaintiff had a life estate in the whole of the property and an undivided one-third fee simple interest in the property, subject to the life estate. From an order denying Plaintiff’s motion for a new trial, Plaintiff appealed.

Issue. The issues raised by Plaintiff is in two parts.
Are the provisions of the will concerning the marriage of the Plaintiff void as against public policy; and
Did the testatrix’s intent manifest a desire to grant unto Plaintiff a fee simple determinable, subject to reduction only in the event of Plaintiff’s marriage?
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