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In re Estate of Houston

    Brief Fact Summary.

    Henry Houston left a will providing for a trust and stating that upon the death of his last surviving child the principle was to be distributed in equal shares to his grandchildren.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    A court analyzes all of the language in the four corners of a will in order to determine the intent of the testator. If there is not a clear and plain intent to create a contingent interest, the interest will be construed to be vested or vested subject to being divested.

    Facts.

    Henry Houston died in 1892. He left a will that established a trust. While the trust was in place, his grandchildren received the income per stirpes. Upon the death of his last surviving child, the principle of the trust was to be distributed equally amongst his grandchildren, the children of any deceased grandchildren taking their parent’s share. His relatives disagreed over the distribution of the principle upon the death of the last surviving child. At that time, he had eight living grandchildren, three deceased grandchildren who left heirs but no surviving children, and one deceased grandchild who left children. One group of relatives claimed that the interests in the remainder vested in the grandchildren upon Houston’s death, or upon their birth if born after his death. Under this interpretation, the principle would be split into 12 shares. The eight living grandchildren would take eight shares. The children of the deceased grandchild would split one share, and the heirs of each of the other three deceased grandchildren would split their three shares. The competing interpretation was that the interests did not vest at the time of the testator’s death or the grandchildren’s birth, but were contingent upon each grandchild or their children surviving the death of the last surviving child. Under this interpretation, the remainder would be split into nine shares, one for each of the eight living grandchildren, and one to be split amongst the children of the deceased grandchild who left surviving children. The trial court found the interests to have vested in grandchildren alive at the testator’s death, or born thereafter, with the children of any deceased grandchildren taking their parent’s share and split the principle into 12 shares. The other relatives appealed, arguing that the testator expressly gave the income per stirpes and the principal per capita.

    Issue.

    Shall a court look to the four corners of the will in order to divine the intent of the testator and ensure that the testator’s intent to create contingent interests is clear and plain?

    Held.

    (Bell, C.J.) Yes. A court analyzes all of the language in the four corners of a will in order to determine the intent of the testator. If there is not a clear and plain intent to create a contingent interest, the interest will be construed to be vested or vested subject to being divested. The language of the will demonstrates the testator’s intent to give the principal of his estate to his grandchildren per capita, or if the grandchild was dead but survived by children, the children would take their parent’s share. The testator’s will showed an ability to make a gift contingent upon survival, and to establish a per stirpes distribution. The only condition on his gift to his grandchildren was that if the grandchild was deceased but survived by children, the children would take their parent’s share. The law favors vested over contingent interests and presumes an interest to be vested. Affirmed.

    Dissent.

    (Roberts, J.) The testator’s meaning and language are clear. In light of the testator’s personal experiences, the court should not conclude that he intended for his estate to pass to the heirs of his deceased grandchildren. He specifically provided for deceased grandchildren who left children but was silent as to deceased grandchildren without surviving children. If he intended them as beneficiaries, he would have said so.

    Discussion.

    Courts attempt to determine and apply the testator’s intent when the language of a will is ambiguous. Some jurisdictions allow the examination of evidence extrinsic to the will itself, while others are restricted to the four corners of the instrument. The dissent argued that the experiences of the testator should be considered in determining his intent. This type of extrinsic evidence is less probative of the testator’s intent than another written document referring to the will.


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