Scott v. McNeal
154 U.S. 34 (1894)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Scott v. McNeal, 154 U.S. 34 (1894)

Scott v. McNeal

No. 890

Submitted October 23, 1893

Decided May 14, 1894

154 U.S. 34

Syllabus

A court of probate, in the exercise of its jurisdiction over the probate of wills and the administration of estates of deceased persons, has no jurisdiction to appoint an administrator of the estate of a living person, and its orders, made after public notice, appointing an administrator of the estate of a person who is in fact alive, although he has been absent and not heard from for seven years, and licensing the administrator to sell his land for payment of his debts, are void, and the purchaser at the sale takes no title, as against him.

A judgment of the highest court of a state, by which the purchaser at an administrator's sale under order of a probate court, of land of a living person, who had no notice of its proceedings, is held to be entitled to the land as against him deprives him of his property without due process of law, contrary to the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, and is reviewable by this Court on writ of error.

This was an action of ejectment, brought January 14, 1892, in the Superior Court of Thurston County in the State of Washington, by Moses H. Scott against John McNeal and Augustine McNeal to recover possession of a tract of land in that county.

Page 154 U. S. 35

At the trial it was conceded that the title in this land was in the plaintiff until 1888, and he testified that he entered into possession thereof, and made improvements thereon, and had never parted with the possession nor authorized any one to go upon the land; that he had demanded possession of the defendants, and they had withheld it from him, and that its rental value was $100 a year.

The defendants denied the plaintiff's title, and claimed title in themselves under a deed from an administrator of the plaintiff's estate, appointed in April, 1888, and in their answer alleged that in March, 1881, the plaintiff mysteriously disappeared from his place of abode, and without the knowledge of those with whom he had been accustomed to associate, and remained continuously away until July, 1891, and was generally believed by his former associates to be dead, and specifically alleged, and at the trial offered evidence tending to prove, the following facts:

On April 2, 1888, Mary Scott presented to the Probate Court of the County of Thurston, in the Territory of Washington, a petition for the appointment of R. H. Milroy as administrator of the estate of the plaintiff, alleging

"that one Moses H. Scott, heretofore a resident of the above-named county and territory, mysteriously disappeared some time during the month of March, 1881, and more than seven years ago; that careful inquiry made by relatives and friends of said Moses H. Scott at different times since his said disappearance, has failed to give any trace or information of his whereabouts or any evidence that he is still living; that your petitioner verily believes that said Moses H. Scott is dead, and has been dead from the time of his said disappearance;"

that he was never married, and left no last will or testament yet heard of; that he left real estate in his own right in this county of the value of $600, more or less; that his heirs were three minor children of a deceased brother, and that the petitioner was a judgment creditor of Scott.

Notice of that petition was given by posting in three public places, as required by law, a notice, dated April 7, 1888, signed by the probate judge, and in these words:

"In the Probate

Page 154 U. S. 36

Court of Thurston Count -- W. T. Mary Scott having filed in this Court a petition praying for the appointment of R. H. Milroy as administrator of the estate of Moses H. Scott, notice is hereby given that the hearing and consideration of said petition has been fixed for Friday, April 20, 1888 at 10 o'clock a.m. at the office of the undersigned."

At the time thus appointed, the probate court, after appointing a guardian ad litem for said minors and hearing witnesses, made an order by which,

"it duly appearing that said Moses H. Scott disappeared over seven years ago, and that since said time nothing has been heard or known of him by his relatives and acquaintances, and that said relatives and acquaintances believe him to be dead, and that his surroundings, when last seen (about eight years ago), and the circumstances of that time and immediately and shortly afterwards, were such as to give his relatives and acquaintances the belief that he was murdered at about that time, and it appearing that he has estate in this county; now therefore the court find that the said Moses H. Scott is dead to all legal intents and purposes, having died on or about March 25, 1888, and no objections having been filed or made to the said petition of Mary Scott, and the guardian ad litem of the minor heirs herein consenting, it is ordered that said R. H. Milroy be appointed administrator of said estate, and that letters of guardianship issue to him upon his filing a good and sufficient bond in the sum of one thousand dollars."

Letters of administration were issued to Milroy, and he gave bond accordingly.

On July 16, 1888, the probate court, on the petition of Milroy as administrator, and after the usual notice, and with the consent of the guardian ad litem of said minors, made an order, authorizing Milroy as administrator to sell all Scott's real estate. Pursuant to this order, he sold by public auction the land now in question, for the price of $301.50, to Samuel C. Ward. On November 26, 1888, the probate court confirmed the sale, the land was conveyed to Ward, and the purchase money was received by Milroy, and was afterwards applied by him to the payment of a debt of Scott, secured by mortgage of the land.

Page 154 U. S. 37

On November 26, 1889, Ward conveyed this land by warranty deed to the defendants for a consideration paid of $800, and the defendants forthwith took and since retained possession of the land, and made valuable improvements thereon.

At the time of the offer of this evidence, the plaintiff objected to the admission of the proceedings in the probate court upon the ground that they were absolutely void because no administration on the estate of a live man could be valid, and the probate court had no jurisdiction to make the orders in question, and objected to the rest of the evidence as irrelevant and immaterial. But the court ruled that, the probate court having passed upon the sufficiency of the petition to give it jurisdiction, and having found that the law presumed Scott to be dead, its proceedings were not absolutely void, and therefore admitted the evidence objected to and directed a verdict for the defendants, which was returned by the jury, and judgment rendered thereon. The plaintiff duly excepted to the rulings and instructions at the trial, and appealed to the supreme court of the state.

In that court, it was argued in his behalf "that to give effect to the probate proceedings under the circumstances would be to deprive him of his property without due process of law." But the court held the proceedings of the probate court to be valid, and therefore affirmed the judgment. 5 Wash. 309.

The plaintiff sued out this writ of error, and assigned for error that the probate proceedings, as regarded him and his estate, were without jurisdiction over the subject matter, and absolutely void, and that the judgment of the superior court, and the judgment of the supreme court of the state affirming that judgment, deprived him of his property without due process of law, and were contrary to the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States.

Page 154 U. S. 38

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