Harrison v. Nixon
34 U.S. 483

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U.S. Supreme Court

Harrison v. Nixon, 34 U.S. 9 Pet. 483 483 (1835)

Harrison v. Nixon

34 U.S. (9 Pet.) 483


A bill was filed in the Circuit Court of the United States, for the District of Pennsylvania stating that one Matthias Aspden, a citizen of Pennsylvania, made his will, dated in Philadelphia on 6 December, 1791, and bequeathed all his estate "to his heir at law," and died in April, 1829; that letters testamentary were taken out in Pennsylvania by the executor; that large sums of money were received by him; and the bill prays for a decree in favor of the complainant, who asserts himself to be the true and only heir at law of the testator, and that he is solely entitled to the bequest. The answer of the executor states, that from information and belief the testator was born in Philadelphia, which was the residence of his parents about 1756; that he continued to reside there, doing business as a merchant before he was twenty-one, and before the breaking out of the war with Great Britain in 1776; being still a minor, he went to England, under a belief that Great Britain would soon prevail in the contest; that he subsequently came back to the United States and invested large sums in government stocks. But, whether he afterwards went back to England as his home or only for the purpose of superintending his property, and whether the testator did in fact change his domicile, the executor (save and except as appears by the facts) doth not know. He believes that the testator, when in England, considered himself as an alien, and he died in King Street, Holborn, London. That letters testamentary were taken out in England, and the will was proved there, and proceedings were instituted in England by a person claiming to be the heir at law. Various proceedings took place in the Circuit Court of Pennsylvania. A reference was made to a master to examine and state the heirs and next of kin of the testator, and a report made by him, which was afterwards confirmed, and thereupon a final decree was made in favor of John Aspden, of Lancashire, in England, one of the claimants before the master, as entitled to the personal estate of the testator as "heir at law." The cause having come by appeal before this Court for argument, a question occurred whether the frame of the bill, taken by itself or taken in connection with the answer, contained sufficient matter upon which the court could proceed to dispose of the merits of the cause, and make a final decision.

By the Court:

"The bill contains no averment of the actual domicile of the testator at the time of the making of his will or at the time of his death, or at any intermediate period, nor does the answer contain any averments of domicile which supply these defects in the bill, even if it could so do, but in point of law it could not."

Every bill must contain in itself sufficient matter of fact, per se, to maintain the case of the plaintiff. The proofs must be according to the allegations of the parties, and if the proofs go to matters not within the allegations, the court cannot judicially act upon them as a ground for decision, for the pleadings do not put them in contestation.

Page 34 U. S. 484

This is the case of a will, and so far as the matter of the bill is concerned, is exclusively confined to personalty bequeathed by that will. And the court is called upon to give a construction to the terms of the will, and in an especial manner to ascertain who is meant by the words "heirs at law," in the leading bequest in the will. The language of wills is not of universal interpretation, having the same import in all countries and under all circumstances. They are supposed to speak the sense of the testator according to the received laws and usages of the country where he is domiciled, by a sort of tacit reference to them, unless there is something in the language which repels or controls such a conclusion. In regard to personalty, in an especial manner, the law of the place of the testator's domicile governs the distribution thereof unless it is manifest that the testator had the laws of some other country in view.

No one can doubt if a testator, born, and domiciled in England during his life, by his will gives his personal estate to his heir at law, that the descriptio personae would have reference to and be governed by the import of the terms in the sense of the laws of England. The import of them might be very different if the testator were born and domiciled in France, in Louisiana, Pennsylvania, or Massachusetts.

A will of personalty speaks according to the testator's domicile, when there are no other

circumstances to contract the application. To raise the question what the testator meant, it must first be ascertained where was his domicile, and whether he had reference to the laws of that place or to the laws of a foreign country.

The bill in this case should allege the material facts upon which the plaintiff's title depends, and the final judgment of the court must be given, so as to put them in contestation in a proper and regular manner, and the court cannot dispose of this cause without ascertaining where the testator's domicile was at the time of his making his will and at the time of his death, and there ought to be suitable averments in the bill to put those matters in issue. The case ought to be remanded to the circuit court for the purpose of having suitable amendments made in reference to the domicile of the testator, and averments made of his domicile at the time of making the will, and at the time of his death, and at the intermediate period, if any change took place.

Upon motions made to the court, and from proceedings in the circuit court, laid before the court, it appeared that there are certain claimants of the bequest, asserting themselves to be "heirs at law," whose claims were not adjudicated upon in that court on account of their having been presented at too late a period. By the court:

"As the cause is to go back again for further proceedings, and must be opened there for new allegations and proofs, the claimants will have a full opportunity of presenting and proving their claims, and they ought to be let into the cause for that purpose."

No persons but those appearing to be parties on the record can be permitted to be heard on an appeal or writ of error.

Matthias Aspden, on 6 December, 1791, made his will, with the codicils annexed thereto, as follows:

Page 34 U. S. 485

"These are to certify that I do hereby annul and revoke all my former wills, giving and bequeathing my estate, real and personal, to my heir-at-law, first paying all my just debts and funeral expenses, and the following legacies, first, to each of the children of my half brother, Benjamin Hartley deceased, that may be alive at my death, the sum of

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