Adams v. Cowen
177 U.S. 471 (1900)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Adams v. Cowen, 177 U.S. 471 (1900)

Adams v. Cowen

No. 113 of October Term, 1898

Argued January 10-11, 1900

Decided April 16, 1900

177 U.S. 471

Syllabus

Thomas W. Means died in 1890, leaving a large estate and a will made some ten years before his death, containing, among other provisions, the following:

"Item 4. I give, devise and bequeath all the residue and remainder of my estate, personal, real and mixed, wherever situated or located, of which I shall die possessed, to be equally divided among my four children, John Means, William Means, Mary A. Adams, and Margaret A. Means, and my grandson, Thomas M. Culbertson (son and sole heir of my deceased daughter Sarah Jane Culbertson) who shall be living at the time of my decease, and the issue of any child now living, and of said grandson, who may then have deceased, such issue taking the share to which such child or grandson would be entitled if living. But said share given, devised and bequeathed to said grandson or his issue is to be held in trust as hereinafter provided, and to be subject to the provisions hereinafter contained as to said grandson's share."

"Item 5. I have made advances to my said children which are charged to them respectively on my books, and I may make further advances to them respectively, or to some of them, and to my said grandson, which may be charged on my books to their respective accounts. I desire the equal provision herein made for said children and the provision for said grandson to be a provision for them, respectively, in addition to said advances made and that may hereafter be made, and that in the division, distribution and settlement of my said estate, said advances made and that may hereafter be made be treated not as advances, but as gifts not in any manner to be accounted for by my said children and grandson, or any of them or the issue of any of them."

He was in the habit of advancing money to his children, the amounts advanced to each individually being entered against him in the father's books. At the date of the will, the several amounts so advanced were as follows: John, $79,214.36; William, $58,409.54; Mrs. Adams, $51,207.48; Margaret, $39,120.78; Mrs. Culbertson, $29,609.82. Subsequently, in 1898, William becoming involved, the amount advanced to him was largely increased in manner as set forth in the statement of the case and opinion of the Court. After the death of the father, a claim was made that the money thus paid out for William was to be held to be a part of his share of his father's estate.

Held:

(1) That in the absence of some absolute and controlling rule to the contrary, the intentions of a testator, as deduced from the language of the will, construed in the light of the circumstances surrounding

Page 177 U. S. 472

him at the date of its execution, always control as to the disposition of the estate.

(2) That the testator believed that, after be had done in his lifetime what in his judgment his children severally required, there would be an abundance of his estate left for distribution, and intended that all dealings between himself and each of his children should be wiped out, and that what was left after having discharged to each his paternal obligation should be distributed equally.

After the probate of his father's will, William gave to the administrators of the estate with the will annexed an acknowledgment of the receipt from them of $136,035.75 in his own notes to his father as part of his distributive share of his father's estate. At the time when this was done, he was in straitened circumstances, was broken in spirit, and was wavering in his purposes. Held that while a man in the full possession of his faculties and under no duress may give away his property, and equity will not recall the gift, yet it looks with careful scrutiny upon all transactions between trustee and beneficiary, and if it appears that the trustee has taken any advantage of the situation of the beneficiary, and has obtained from him, even for only the benefit of other beneficiaries, large property without consideration, it will refuse to uphold the transaction thus accomplished, and that the conclusions of the circuit court of appeals in this case must be sustained, and its decree affirmed.

On November 16, 1891, the respondents, trustees for the wife and children of William Means, filed their bill in the Circuit Court of the United States for the District of Kentucky against the petitioners as administrators (with the will annexed) of Thomas W. Means, deceased, and John Means, a son of said Thomas W. Means. The case passed to hearing in that court upon pleadings and proofs, and resulted in a decree, on July 31, 1895, in favor of the defendants dismissing the bill. From such dismissal the plaintiffs appealed to the Circuit Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, which court, on February 8, 1897, reversed the decree of dismissal and entered a decree in favor of the plaintiffs. 78 F. 536, 80 F. 448. On May 24, 1897, a petition was filed in this Court for a certiorari, which was allowed, and on December 6, 1897, the certiorari and return were duly filed. At the October term, 1898, of this Court, after argument and on May 22, 1899, the decree of the circuit court of appeals was affirmed by a divided court. Thereafter, upon petition, a rehearing was ordered, and the case was argued at the present term before a full bench.

Page 177 U. S. 473

The facts are these: Thomas W. Means, a resident of Ashland, Kentucky, died there on June 8, 1890, leaving an estate consisting chiefly of personal property, which was appraised (including the notes of his son, William Means for $136,035.75) at $752,302.44. He left four children, John Means, William Means, Margaret A. Means, and Mary A. Adams, and one grandson, Thomas M. Culbertson, the only child of a deceased daughter. Some ten years prior to his death, and on July 20, 1880, he made a will in which, after provisions for the payment of his debts, funeral expenses, and expenses of administration, were these two items:

"Item 4. I give, devise, and bequeath all the residue and remainder of my estate, personal, real, and mixed, wherever situated or located, of which I shall die possessed, to be equally divided among my four children, John Means, William Means, Mary A. Adams, and Margaret A. Means, and my grandson, Thomas M. Culbertson (son and sole heir of my deceased daughter, Sarah Jane Culbertson), who shall be living at the time of my decease, and the issue of any child now living, and of said grandson, who may then have deceased, such issue taking the share to which such child or grandson would be entitled if living. But said share given, devised, and bequeathed to said grandson or his issue is to be held in trust as hereinafter provided, and to be subject to the provisions hereinafter contained as to said grandson's share."

"Item 5. I have made advances to my said children which are charged to them respectively on my books, and I may make further advances to them respectively, or to some of them, and to my said grandson, which may be charged on my books to their respective accounts. I desire the equal provision, herein made for said children, and the provision for said grandson, to be a provision for them respectively, in addition to said advances made and that may hereafter be made, and that in the division, distribution, and settlement of my said estate, said advances made and that may hereafter be made, be treated not as advancements, but as gifts not in any manner to be accounted for by my said children and grandson, or any of them, or the issue of any of them. "

Page 177 U. S. 474

Thomas W. Means was a prosperous iron manufacturer who had, as stated, accumulated in his lifetime a large estate. For many years he had been in the habit of letting his children have money. This he had been doing for at least twenty-five years before the making of the will. This money was not given to them in equal sums at regular or irregular intervals. In other words, he was not making a partial and equal distribution of his estate in advance of his death, but the money was paid to or for one or another of his children as occasion seemed to call for it. Accounts were entered with each of these children in his books, and the money thus paid to or for them was charged against them in these accounts, so that, upon the face of the books, they stood as debtors to him for the amounts so charged. The amounts thus charged were sometimes large. The accounts were often reduced by money or property returned to the father. So the father dealt separately with each child, letting him or her have money whenever in his judgment the interest of the child called for it. He was helping them in their business, paying their debts, and otherwise using his large properties for their benefit. At the same time, the accounts were kept in his books in such a way as to indicate that he retained a claim against each child for the balance shown on such account. He made memoranda on his books, such as this at the head of John's account:

"This account and the accounts of William Means and Mary A. Adams are not to be charged with interest when final settlement is made, or at any time. Thomas W. Means."

With that as the relation between himself and children, Thomas W. Means made the will containing the two items above quoted. He was then seventy-seven years old. At the date of the will, the accounts showed the following debtor balances:

John . . . . . . . . . . . . . $79,214.36

William. . . . . . . . . . . . 58,409.54

Mrs. Adams . . . . . . . . . . 51,207.48

Margaret . . . . . . . . . . . 39,120.78

Mrs. Culbertson. . . . . . . . 29,609.82

In 1888, a bank in Cincinnati, of which William was president, failed, a failure which brought financial ruin to William. To

Page 177 U. S. 475

relieve him from the embarrassment and dangers which threatened by reason of such failure, a large sum of money was paid out by Thomas W. Means for William's benefit. The question presented in this case is whether the money thus paid out is to be held a part of William's share of his father's estate, or whether it is to be deducted from the estate and the division made of the balance between the five legatees.

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