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Lewis v. Searles

    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?

    Held. No to issue a. and Yes to issue b. Judgment reversed.
    The Court noted the general rule that provisions of general restraint of marriage in testamentary instruments are invalid as against public policy. However, the Court noted that many jurisdictions have created many exceptions to the general rule.
    In this issue the Court considered a previous decision of Winget v. Gay, 28 S.W. 2nd 999 (M.O. 1930). In the Winget case the court held that where all the circumstances were considered it was clearly the intent of the testator to provide support for the stepdaughter during the time she remained single, but that when she married the testator intended that such support be provided by her new husband. In that case the court held that such a provision was not against public policy, insofar as it was not construed to be a punishment for marrying but merely a method of providing support until such time as support is no longer necessary. Therefore, in the facts presented here, the testatrix’s intent was found to be to support Plaintiff during the time she was single, but that if she married, to lessen the support and share her bounty with the other niece and nephew. The portions of the will concerning the marriage of the Plaintiff were found valid.
    The Court will look to the whole of the will to construe the intent of the testatrix. The Court noted that the requirement of words “to heirs and assigns” had been omitted by statute in order to aid in the probate of poorly drawn wills. In this portion of the opinion the Court distinguishes the case of Winget, cited infra, as to the intention of the testatrix. In that case the purported gift over was to “the other heirs.” In this case no such language is present. Thus, the Court, in reading the provision of the will regarding the grant to Plaintiff and the limitation of condition of her marriage, found that the testatrix was thinking only in terms of fee, and manifested no intent to create a life estate in Plaintiff.
    The Court noted a statute on construction of wills and found that the effect of the statute was that all devises are presumed to be in fee simple so long as there is no language of life estate and no further devise is made to take effect after the death of the devisee. Thus the Plaintiff was granted in the will as fee simple determinable subject to defeasance of two-thirds only if she married.

    Discussion. This case illustrates the court’s effort to understand the intent of testamentary documents which are not well written. The case shows the confusion that can result when the drafters of wills are not precise in devising the estates of the testator.


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