Yonley v. Lavender - 88 U.S. 276 (1874)
U.S. Supreme Court
Yonley v. Lavender, 88 U.S. 21 Wall. 276 276 (1874)
Yonley v. Lavender
88 U.S. 276
Where a statute of a state places the whole estate, real and personal, of a decedent within the custody of the probate court of the county so that the assets may be fairly and equally distributed among creditors, without distinction us to whether resident or nonresident, a nonresident creditor may get a judgment in a federal court against the resident executor or administrator and come in on the estate according to the law of the state for such payment as that law, marshaling the rights of creditors, awards to debtors of his class. But he cannot, because he has obtained a judgment in the federal court, issue execution and take precedence of other creditors who have no right to sue in the federal courts, and if he do issue execution and sell lands, the sale is void.
By the Constitution and laws of Arkansas, the probate of wills and the grant of letters testamentary and of administration are matters wholly within the jurisdiction of the probate court. One statute thus enacts:
"All actions commenced against any executor or administrator after the death of the testator or intestate shall be considered demands legally exhibited against such estate from the time of serving the original process on the executor or administrator, and shall be classed accordingly. [Footnote 1]"
"All demands against any estate shall be paid by the executor or administrator in the order in which they are classed, and no demand of one class shall be paid until the claims of all previous classes are satisfied; and if there be not sufficient to pay the whole of any one class, such demands shall be paid in proportion to their amounts, which apportionment shall be made by the court of probate."
Under this statute, the courts of Arkansas have decided [Footnote 2] that the legal effect of granting letters testamentary or of administration is to place the whole estate, real and personal, within the custody of the law and leave it there
until the administration has been completed; that in this way the assets are preserved, so that there may be a fair and equal division of them among the several creditors according to a scale of priority fixed by law, there being no distinction between resident and nonresident creditors; that all demands against deceased persons which are not liens upon specific property before the death of the debtor can only be collected by being brought under the administration of the probate court, and that while it is true that the debtor is not compelled to resort to the probate court to settle the existence of his debt, but may, by suit in any court of competent jurisdiction, obtain judgment on it, the effect of this judgment is to establish the demand against the estate and to remit it to the probate court for classification by the administrator and payment under the order of the court, either in whole or in part, according to the rule under which the rights of creditors are marshaled; that it cannot be enforced in the ordinary mode, by execution, as if rendered against a living person.
"If it could be [say the courts of Arkansas] the statutory provision relating to all estates, whether solvent or insolvent, 'that all demands against estates shall be paid by the executor or administrator in the order in which they are classed,' and 'that no demand of any class shall be paid until the claims of all previous classes are satisfied,' would be rendered of no effect, and the whole policy of the law on the subject defeated."
Such being the law of the state in respect to judgments obtained against the estates of deceased persons in the courts of the state, the inquiry in the present case was whether a different rule was to be applied to judgments of the federal courts. This present case was thus:
One Du Bose, having lands in the County of Arkansas in the state of that name, died in October, 1869, and a certain Halleburton was appointed the administrator of his estate. Halleburton did nothing in the way of discharging his duty. He took no account of debts and assets, did not convert the property into money, and at the end of three years, the term which a statute in Arkansas, governing the subject prescribes
as that when the administrator ought to have his estate settled, things remained as he had found them. Hereupon, a certain Lavender was appointed administrator de bonis non in his place.
In this state of things, Auguste Gautier, a citizen of Louisiana, brought suit in the Circuit Court of the United States for the Eastern District of Arkansas against Lavender as administrator, obtained judgment against him, and, at a sale under an execution issued on this judgment, one Yonley, who seems to have been the attorney of record, bought certain lands belonging to the estate of Du Bose situate in Arkansas County in the state of the same name. These proceedings took place several years after the administration of Du Bose's estate had commenced, and while it was being carried on in Arkansas County under the administration laws of the state. Shortly after Yonley purchased the land, he brought an action of ejectment in the proper state court to dispossess the administrator, which resulted adversely to him, and the supreme court of the state, on appeal, affirmed the judgment of the lower court. It was to revise this judgment that the present writ of error was brought.