Speer v. Colbert
200 U.S. 130 (1906)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Speer v. Colbert, 200 U.S. 130 (1906)

Speer v. Colbert

No. 163

Argued December 13, 14, 1905

Decided January 2, 1906

200 U.S. 130

Syllabus

Institutions incorporated under special acts of Congress take their character from the act incorporating them, and bequests to Georgetown College and other institutions in the District of Columbia under a will made within thirty days of the death of the testator held not void, under § 34 of the Maryland Bill of Rights, as the legatees are not sectarian institutions under any of the acts incorporating them.

There being no institution incorporated as Georgetown University separate from Georgetown College, and as it was evident that the testator intended not to leave the property to an unincorporated institution, but to an

Page 200 U. S. 131

incorporated one able to take the bequest, Georgetown College was entitled thereto.

The franchise of a corporation is not taken away or surrendered, nor is the corporation dissolved, by the mere failure to elect trustees.

It is within the powers of an institution intended for the instruction of youth in the liberal arts and sciences to take and use a fund for the cultivation of historical research.

The trusts in this will were not such as could be defeated by the death or resignation of the trustees, although the will made it their duty to supervise the administration of the fund.

Courts will not hold a bequest void for uncertainty unless actually compelled to do so by the language used, and a bequest of a sum not to exceed a specified amount, if otherwise valid, will be taken to be a bequest of that amount.

It is not an illegal placing of discretion in trustees to empower them to establish a scholarship with a bequest not exceeding a specified sum in "some medical college preferably Georgetown University in the District. "

One of the appellants, Mrs. Speer, on the fifth of March, 1901, filed this bill in her own behalf and by her husband and next friend, Emory Speer, in the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia, to obtain a judicial construction of the will of her deceased brother, Ethelbert Carroll Morgan, who died testate on May 5, 1891, a resident of the District of Columbia. Answers to the bill were duly filed, and the Supreme Court gave judgment construing the will which, upon appeal to the Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia, was reversed, and judgment was entered, construing the will, by the Court of Appeals. From that judgment, Mrs. Speer, together with some of the parties defendant in the suit, appealed, and brought the case here for review.

The will in question was executed on the twenty-second day of April, 1891, and the testator died May 5, 1891. He was never married, and left as his next of kin and heirs at law two brothers and three sisters, viz.: James D. and Cecil Morgan, and Mrs. Speer, the plaintiff in this suit, and Mrs. Anna M. Mosher and Mrs. Ada M. Hill. He appointed William J. Stephenson and John H. Magruder the executors and trustees of his will, the former of whom subsequently died and the

Page 200 U. S. 132

latter resigned, and Michael J. Colbert and James Mosher were duly appointed by the court as substituted trustees under the will. The estate of the testator was treated by him in his will as consisting of two parts -- that which he had himself accumulated and that which came to him through the will of his father, who died in June, 1889. His own accumulations amounted to a little over $23,000, while the estate which he received from his father somewhat exceeded $55,000, the total being a trifle over $78,000. The estate of the deceased had been received by the substituted trustees, Colbert and Mosher, when this bill was filed by Mrs. Speer against them, and also against Mrs. Anna M. Mosher, the wife of James Mosher, and a sister of the testator, and also against the two corporations incorporated as St. Vincent's Orphan Asylum and as Trustees of St. Joseph's Male Orphan Asylum, both being in the District of Columbia, who were made parties because, as the plaintiff in her bill, they claim to be the beneficiaries under the clauses of the will of the testator, leaving a legacy to be equally divided between St. Vincent's and St. Joseph's Catholic Orphan Asylums in the City of Washington, and in order that they might make proof of their identity, if any existed, with the St. Vincent, and also with the St. Joseph, Catholic Orphan Asylums, mentioned in the will, and that they might be bound by the adjudication which might be made by the court in all respects hereafter, and also against John D. Whitney, James P. Fagan, Edward McTammany, James B. Becker, and Edward I. Devitt, who, the plaintiff alleged, claimed to be, by succession, the president and directors of Georgetown College, and who, as such, claimed an interest in the estate of the testator under the clauses of his will mentioning Georgetown University, in the District of Columbia, and the plaintiff alleged that they were made defendants in order that they might make proof of succession to the original incorporators of Georgetown College, and that their claims to the legacy mentioned in the will might be

Page 200 U. S. 133

adjudicated by the court. The bill alleged that the will of the testator was duly admitted to probate in the proper court in the District of Columbia. After making certain provisions not here material, the will of the testator is as follows:

"All the rest and residue of my estate real, personal and mixed of which I am now possessed or shall possess at my death (other than my share under my father's will, of which I would become possessed at my mother's death) I give bequeath and devise to my trustees hereinafter named and their heirs and assigns, with full power to sell convey mortgage and reinvest, in trust nevertheless to apply the income and profits to the use and benefit of my sisters Eleanora Speer wife of Emory Speer and Minnie Mosher, wife of James Mosher, in equal parts during their lives, and, at their death, to deliver and convey each sister's share to her issue, and if either sister die without issue living at her death, to deliver and convey said part to the survivor or her issue if any survive her."

"And if my said two sisters shall both die leaving no issue living at their deaths, I direct my said trustees to deliver and convey all the said rest and remainder of my estate (excepting my share aforesaid under my father's will) to Georgetown University in the District of Columbia to be an endowment in equal shares of the literary and medical departments thereof."

"* * * *"

"And I hereby give bequeath and devise any and all the estate, real personal and mixed, devised to me under my father's will and to which I become entitled to have and possess upon my mother's death, to my trustees hereinafter named, their heirs and assigns forever, with full power to sell convey mortgage encumber and reinvest in trust nevertheless to pay and see to the application of"

"First, the sum of ten thousand ($10,000) dollars to Georgetown University in the District of Columbia to be used and held as an endowment for the prosecution of research in the colonial history of Maryland and the territory now embraced in the District of Columbia and obtaining and preserving

Page 200 U. S. 134

archives and papers having relation thereto, and known as the James Ethelbert Morgan fund."

"Second, a sum not to exceed five thousand ($5,000) dollars to be applied and expended under the personal supervision of my trustees to the purchase and erection of a chime of bells and either a side altar or memorial window or a bell and either a side altar or a memorial window for some one Catholic church . . . said church to be in the District and to be designated by my mother by her last will or otherwise, and if she fail so to do, I direct my trustees to carry out this trust as a memorial of my mother, Nora Morgan, and donate the same to some Catholic church . . . , giving a preference, if there be one, built by the Jesuits. And in event this clause & gift be void, I direct said sum not exceeding $5,000 five thousand dollars shall be equally divided between St. Vincent's and St. Joseph's Catholic orphan asylums in the City of Washington."

"Third. A sufficient sum not to exceed three thousand dollars, the income to be applied to maintain a scholarship in the study of medicine, preferably in Georgetown University; otherwise, in some medical college in the District, to be known as the E. Carroll Morgan scholarship."

"Fourth, the sum of five thousand ($5000) dollars to form a fund known as the E. Carroll Morgan fund or scholarship, to be applied as I may hereafter verbally indicate to my trustees, or, if I fail, as my trustees with the advice of proper persons may decide to the maintenance of a scientific department, or the foundation and the application of the income to a scholarship in the classical department, in the University of Georgetown in the District of Columbia. That the qualifications under both or either of the two last clauses of this will shall be that the applicant be born in the District of Columbia and at the time or within a year a student in a Catholic or a public school of the District of Columbia and most excellent in a competitive examination conducted by the faculty of the University of Georgetown."

"And lastly, as to all the rest and residue of my aforesaid

Page 200 U. S. 135

share of my father's estate, my said trustees, their heirs and assigns, shall hold the same for the benefit of my aforesaid sisters Ellenora and Minnie upon the same limitations conditions, remainders, and powers, and in the same manner as the trustees under my father's will, will then hold, retain, and possess the 'remainder' and bulk of the respective shares of my said two sisters. I wish my brother Cecil to have my share of my father's library. I nominate and appoint William J. Stephenson and John H. Magruder my executors and trustees of this my last will and testament."

"In witness whereof, I have signed and sealed and published and declared this as my will this 22nd day of April, 1891."

The plaintiff alleged that the bequest and devise to Georgetown University, upon the death of the two sisters without issue living at the time of their death, were void because, as alleged, there was no such incorporated institution in the District of Columbia as Georgetown University, capable of taking the bequest and devise, and also upon the ground that, assuming there was a simple misnomer, and that Georgetown College was meant instead of Georgetown University, yet, even upon that assumption, Georgetown College was incapable of taking the devise and bequest because it was under the supervision and control of the Order of Jesuits, and that the college was therefore a sectarian institution. It was also averred that the bequest of $10,000 to Georgetown University in the District of Columbia, to be used and held as an endowment for the prosecution of research in the colonial history of Maryland and the territory now embraced in the District of Columbia,

"was void\ upon the same ground, and also because there was no charter power or authority in Georgetown College (assuming that institution to be meant) to receive the bequest."

Also that the bequest of a sum not to exceed the amount of $5,000, to be applied and expended under the personal supervision of the trustees for the purchase and erection of a chime of bells, etc., was void, as was also the alternative bequest of an amount not to exceed that sum for

Page 200 U. S. 136

the benefit of the two Catholic orphan asylums in the City of Washington, the alternative bequest being void on the ground that those asylums were under the charge and control of persons belonging to religious orders, and therefore incapable of taking the bequest, and on the further ground that the amount of the bequest was uncertain. The bill averred also that the remaining bequest of a sum not to exceed $3,000, and also the bequest of $5,000 for the purpose of maintaining and founding scholarships, etc., were void because of their uncertainty and the want of clearly defined conditions under which the funds should be applied. The defendants answered the bill, and none of them conceded the validity of the claims made therein. Colbert, one of the substituted trustees, and also John D. Whitney and others, for and on behalf of the president and directors of Georgetown College, and also the trustees of St. Joseph's Male Orphan Asylum and of St. Vincent's Orphan Asylum, all claimed the validity of the bequests contained in the will, while the answer of Mosher, the other substituted trustee, simply expressed his willingness that the provisions of the will of the testator should be given effect and carried out only so far as they were legal and valid.

On the trial, proof was taken in regard to the name and corporate status of Georgetown College, claiming the devises and bequests made to and on behalf of Georgetown University.

The Supreme Court, in an elaborate opinion (reported in 31 Washington Law Reporter 630, 646) held that the devises and bequests to trustees named in the will of the testator's estate, exclusive of that which came to him under the will of his father, were valid and effectual. The court also held that all the clauses and subclauses in the will of the testator disposing of property acquired by the testator under his father's will were void, and that the property therein spoken of became part of the residuum of the estate of the testator, and vested in the beneficiaries entitled to take under the residuary clause of the will. The Court of Appeals, upon review

Page 200 U. S. 137

of this judgment, held that the clauses of the will were valid, except the bequest of "a sum not to exceed five thousand dollars," to be expended under the personal supervision of the trustees in the purchase and erection of a chime of bells, and the erection of an altar or memorial window, etc., but the alternative bequest of the sum not to exceed $5,000, to be equally divided between St. Vincent and St. Joseph's Orphan Asylums in the City of Washington, was good. It also held that the clause in the will providing for the application of $5,000 to form a fund to be known as the E. Carroll Morgan fund or scholarship, to be applied as

"I [the testator] may hereafter verbally indicate to my trustees or if I fail, as my trustees with the advice of proper persons may decide, to the maintenance of a scientific department, or the foundation and the application of the income to a scholarship in the classical department in the University of Georgetown in the District of Columbia,"

was void. No appeal has been taken from this last portion of the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

Page 200 U. S. 140

Official Supreme Court caselaw is only found in the print version of the United States Reports. Justia caselaw is provided for general informational purposes only, and may not reflect current legal developments, verdicts or settlements. We make no warranties or guarantees about the accuracy, completeness, or adequacy of the information contained on this site or information linked to from this site. Please check official sources.