Riggles v. Erney
154 U.S. 244 (1894)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Riggles v. Erney, 154 U.S. 244 (1894)

Riggles v. Erney

No. 335

Argued April 2-3, 1894

Decided May 26, 1894

154 U.S. 244

Syllabus

Part performance of an oral contract for the conveyance of an interest in real estate in the District of Columbia takes it out of the operation of the statute of frauds, and authorizes a court of equity to decree a full and specific performance of it if proved.

This was a bill in equity for the specific performance of an oral contract for the sale of land.

The bill made substantially the following case: Thomas Riggles, ancestor both of plaintiffs and defendant, died in 1863, leaving a will, in which he made the following devises:

Page 154 U. S. 245

"I will and devise that my house and premises which I now occupy, situated in the City of Washington in the District of Columbia, being lot numbered seven (7) and part of lot numbered eight (8) in square numbered one hundred and ninety-nine (199), together with all the household and kitchen furniture and other personal property that may be on said premises at the time of my decease, shall be and remain in the possession of my wife, Catharine Riggles, during her lifetime, for the benefit of herself and our four children, named Thomas, Catharine, Maria, and Hannah Riggles, respectively, and after the death of my said wife, the said house and premises to remain in the hands of my executor, hereinafter named, to be by him used for the benefit of the above-named four children until the youngest one of them surviving shall become twenty-one years of age, provided that when the said Thomas shall arrive at twenty-one years of age, and when either of the said daughters shall be married, then, and in either such case, the benefit arising from said property shall be exclusively for the use of such of said daughters as may then be unmarried, and after the death of my said wife, and the said youngest child shall attain the age of twenty-one year, then the said house and premises I will and bequeath unto my son, Thomas Riggles, with the express provision that such of my aforenamed daughters as may then be unmarried shall be taken care of by my said son Thomas, and in case the said Thomas Riggles shall depart this life before the said three sisters, then the said house and premises to be sold, and the proceeds be divided equally among the said three sisters, or the survivors of them."

"Item. I will and devise that all the lots of ground belonging to me situate in square numbered one hundred and seventy-nine (179) in said City of Washington which may remain unsold and disposed of by my said executor at such time and in such manner as his discretion may dictate as most for the advantage of my wife and children aforenamed, and the amounts that may be realized therefrom, after paying all necessary expenses of my wife and family, be by him

Page 154 U. S. 246

invested at his discretion for the benefit of my said wife and four children, or as many of them as shall remain unmarried, and after the death of my said wife, and our four children shall have attained the age of twenty-one years, if any of said property in square one hundred and seventy-nine remains unsold, and also any surplus that may then remain from the proceeds of said square one hundred and seventy-nine, to be divided between my other children, John, James, and William Riggles, and my daughters Mary Ann Miller and Sarah Turton, and it is farther my wish and desire that should the residue remaining from the sale of my lots in square one hundred and seventy-nine be more than the value of said house and premises I now occupy in square one hundred and ninety-nine, then and in that case I wish and devise that my son Thomas and my said daughters Catharine, Maria, and Hannah Riggles shall receive from the proceeds of square one hundred and seventy-nine such portion of such proceeds as make all their shares alike or equal to each other and to the shares of my other children."

Under this will, John B. Turton subdivided square 179, sold portions of the same, and died, leaving lots from 1 to 42 and from 61 to 80, inclusive, unsold, and subject to a deed of trust executed by him to secure the repayment of certain moneys borrowed. Such moneys, as well as the proceeds of the lots sold, were alleged to have been appropriated to the support of the widow and her four children.

In 1873, the widow and her four children, Thomas, Maria, Catharine, and Hannah, desiring to have the property in square 179 sold for the purpose of a partial division of the estate, and for the purpose of paying certain indebtedness they had incurred, as well as certain taxes and assessments upon the homestead, it was proposed and agreed that notwithstanding the devises in the will, the entire estate should be equally divided between the widow and the children of the testator; that the lots in square 179 should be at once sold for the payment of the encumbrances, taxes, and assessments upon the whole realty, and of the indebtedness of the widow and her four children, and that the net proceeds

Page 154 U. S. 247

should be divided between the widow and all the children, and that the homestead should be retained for the use and occupation of the widow and her four children until her death and the death or marriage of her daughters, when the said homestead property should be sold and the proceeds divided among all the children of the testator.

In pursuance of this arrangement, a deed was executed whereby all the parties in interest conveyed to John Riggles and George W. Evans the remaining lots in square 179, in trust to sell and dispose of the same, to pay and discharge all taxes and assessments due upon the lots in both squares, and, after paying and discharging all liens, taxes, and assessments upon all the property, to distribute the remainder of the proceeds between the widow and children in equal proportions, share and share alike, and

"that the said deed was made and executed by all of the parties, including the defendant Hannah Erney (who executed the said deed as Hannah Riggles), upon the distinct agreement and condition that whenever under the said will and testament that the said property in square 199 should be sold, the proceeds of such sale should be applied and distributed in the same manner."

The trustees, Riggles and Evans, proceeded under this arrangement, sold the lots in square 179 from time to time, paid the liens and encumbrances upon the property, as well as taxes and assessments, paid and discharged the indebtedness contracted by the widow and her four children, including defendant Hannah Erney, for their maintenance, and also advanced to the widow the further sum of $500, the said payments on account of the said homestead property, and of the maintenance and support of the widow and her four children, amounting to nearly $3,000. After such payments the trustees divided the remainder of the proceeds among all the children of the testator, the share so paid to each of the devisees being over $3,000 and such distribution being made strictly in pursuance of the original agreement.

That the period has arrived when the lots in square 199 should be sold, and the proceeds divided; that the widow is

Page 154 U. S. 248

dead, as well as three of her four children, leaving Hannah Erney sole survivor of such devisee; that plaintiffs have applied to defendant Hannah to carry out this agreement, but she refuses to acknowledge it, and claims that under the provisions of the will, she, as the sole survivor of the devisees of the lots in square 199, is entitled to all of said property and the proceeds thereof. Plaintiffs further averred that her agreement to sell the homestead property was the only consideration for the appropriation to the widow and her four children of the proceeds of sale of the property in square 179; that under the will, defendant and her co-devisees were not entitled to any portion of such property except for their current support, while the daughters were unmarried, and that plaintiffs, by making the agreement, gave the defendant Hannah and her co-devisees $18,000 -- much more than the entire value of the homestead property; that it was the intention of the testator that in the ultimate division of the estate all the children should have an equal share; that such intention was recognized, and was the basis upon which the agreement was made, and that the distribution of the proceeds of the sales of square 179 was in partial execution of such intention and agreement.

The prayer of the bill was that defendants Hannah and her husband might be enjoined from disposing of the property in square 199 until the rights of the parties could be definitely settled, and that such property might be sold and the proceeds distributed upon the basis of the agreement.

Defendant Hannah Erney, in her separate answer, admitted signing the deed for the sale of the remaining lots in square 179, but denied there was any agreement or condition that the homestead should be sold and the proceeds divided in the same manner.

Replication was filed, proofs taken, and, the case coming on to be heard in the court below, the bill was dismissed upon the ground that the statute of frauds presented an insurmountable barrier to relief. Plaintiffs appealed to the general term, by which the decree of the special

Page 154 U. S. 249

term was affirmed, and the plaintiffs appealed to this Court. *

Page 154 U. S. 251

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