Young Women's Christian Home v. French,
Annotate this Case
187 U.S. 401 (1903)
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U.S. Supreme Court
Young Women's Christian Home v. French, 187 U.S. 401 (1903)
Young Women's Christian Home v. French
Nos. 73, 74
Argued November 5-6, 1902
Decided January 5, 1903
187 U.S. 401
By her last will and testament, Mrs. Sophia Rhodes provided for her husband by securing to him the income from one-half her estate, subject to which the whole was devised and bequeathed to her only son; in the event of her son's predecease, the entire estate to trustees in trust for the husband for life, and on his death to the Young Women's Christian Home; in the event testatrix survived husband and son, then to the Home. The mother and son survived the husband, and perished in a shipwreck, going down together. The estate was claimed by the next of kin of Mrs. Rhodes, by the next of kin of the son, and by the Young Women's Christian Home. Held:
(1) That there is no presumption of survivorship in the case of those who perish by a common disaster, in the absence of proof tending to show the order in which dissolution took place, and, actual survivorship being unascertainable, descent and distribution take the same course as if the deaths had been simultaneous.
(2) Whether by a particular will a condition precedent, a condition subsequent, or a conditional limitation is imposed is, in the absence of unmistakable language, matter of construction arrived at in view of the familiar rules that the intention of the testator must prevail, and that intestacy should be prevented if legally possible.
(3) As the state of facts at the time of Mrs. Rhodes' death did not substantially differ from what the will showed she contemplated when
it was executed, the interpolation of some phrase covering the contingency of inability to ascertain survivorship is unnecessary, and her intention as sufficiently declared on the whole will may be carried into effect.
(4) The use of the words, "if she survived," instead of the words, "if they did not survive," is not material, and, on principle, the estate of Mrs. Rhodes should go as directed as if she survived her son in the absence of proof to the contrary. The property remained where it was vested, there being no evidence that it had been divested.
These are appeals from a decree of the Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia on a bill of interpleader exhibited in the Supreme Court of the District by the administrators with the will annexed of the estate of Sophia Rhodes, deceased. At the conclusion of the administration, there remained in the hands of the administrators a fund of $14,891.89 for distribution, which was claimed by the Young Women's Christian Home, a corporation of the District of Columbia created by act of Congress, the next or kin of Sophia Rhodes, and the administrator of the estate of Eugene Rhodes, deceased, and the interpleader was filed to determine the rights of the parties.
The will of Sophia Rhodes was executed at Washington, May 10, 1894, and read as follows:
"In the name of the bountiful Giver of all. Amen."
"I. Sophia Rhodes, of the City of Hutchinson, in the State of Kansas, temporarily residing at Washington, in the District of Columbia, being now of sound and disposing mind and memory, do make, publish, and declare this my last will and testament, hereby revoking all former wills or testamentary dispositions of my property."
"I now dispose of the property and estate which it has pleased Almighty God to entrust to me, as follows, viz.:"
"Imprimis. I will that all my just debts and funeral expenses shall be paid by my executor hereinafter named, out of the first money from my estate that shall come into his hands."
"Item 1. I give, devise and bequeath unto my husband Oliver Wheeler Rhodes, during his life one-half (1/2) of the income from all my properties and estate in the next following item of this last will and testament disposed of, to be paid
over to him from time to time by my executor hereinafter named, who, for this purpose, shall also act as trustee."
"Item 2. I now give, devise, and bequeath unto my only and beloved son, Eugene Rhodes, all my property, real, personal, and mixed, of whatsoever nature, kind, or description, including moneys, credits, and evidences of indebtedness of which I may be possessed at the time of my death, to be his absolutely, to hold and to dispose of as unto him may seem good and proper, and subject only to the provisions of item 1 of this last will and testament."
"Item 3. In the event of the death of my son, Eugene Rhodes, before the decease either of myself or of my husband, I then give, devise, and bequeath all my property, everything I own on earth, as follows, viz.:"
"1st. I give, devise, and bequeath all my pictures and paintings to the Young Women's Christian Home, in the City of Washington, District of Columbia. It is my will that the said pictures and paintings may, so long as the said home shall exist, be the ornaments of the said home, with my name as the giver connected with them during that time."
"2d. All the rest and residue of my property, real, personal, and mixed, I give, devise, and bequeath to Michael H. Fitch, of Pueblo, Colorado, to have and to hold, in trust nevertheless, to invest the same to the best of his knowledge and experience, and to pay over the rents and profits arising therefrom to my husband, Oliver Wheeler Rhodes, during his, my said husband's life, and on the death of my said husband to turn over the said property, moneys, etc., with whatsoever accumulation thereon may be existing, to the Young Women's Christian Home, of Washington, in the District of Columbia, to be the property of the said home absolutely."
"Item 4. In the event of my becoming the survivor of both my husband, Oliver Wheeler Rhodes, and of my son, Eugene Rhodes, I then give, devise, and bequeath all my property, real, personal, and mixed, of whatsoever nature, kind, or description, to the Young Women's Christian Home, of the City of Washington, in the District of Columbia, to have and to hold the same absolutely and forever, for the good of that institution.
It is my will that my pictures and paintings shall be disposed of in this event as provided in paragraph 1st, of item 3, of this last will and testament."
"Lastly. I hereby constitute and appoint my only son, Eugene Rhodes, the sole executor and trustee of this my last will and testament, and it is my will that my said sole executor and trustee shall administer and execute this last will and testament without giving bond therefor."
The facts were stipulated, and may be shortly stated thus: Oliver Wheeler Rhodes died at Washington, January 27, 1895, at which time his wife, Sophia Rhodes, and their only child, Eugene Rhodes, were in Heidelberg, Germany. They sailed for home from Bremen on the steamship Elbe at three o'clock P.M. on Tuesday, January 29, 1895. About half-past 5 o'clock the next morning, the Elbe collided with another steamship, and sank in about twenty minutes after the collision. Mrs. Rhodes was about fifty-two years old, corpulent, and short of breath, and her son was about twenty-three years old, a single man, and rather a good swimmer. His body came up in a fishing net off the coast of Holland some six weeks after the collision, but his mother's body was never recovered. Of the persons who survived the shipwreck, only two had any knowledge of the mother and son at the time of the disaster. One of them saw Mrs. Rhodes come out of her cabin just after the collision with a blanket over her night dress, and some minutes later saw her son. The other saw the mother and son on deck after the collision, the son endeavoring to put a shawl around his mother, and she with her arms thrown around her son's neck. This person was the last to get into the last boat to leave the ship, and, when it had gotten some distance away, the ship went down with a lurch and everyone on board was drowned. He testified that
"both of these parties died together, and, so far as this affiant was able to learn, after he saw these parties on the deck clasped in an embrace that would never be loosened until after death, no one else saw them."
The Supreme Court of the District held that there was no presumption of survivorship as between the mother and son; that the will manifested an unmistakable desire to guard
against intestacy, and that the intention of Mrs. Rhodes was clearly apparent that, if her husband and son should not survive her so as to receive the property, or if it remained under her control at the time of her death, it should go absolutely to the charity she had named, the Young Women's Christian Home, and decreed accordingly. From this decree Barbara Faul and Andrew Wasner, next of kin of Mrs. Rhodes, and John L. French, administrator of Eugence Rhodes, carried the case to the Court of Appeals of the District, which concurred in the view that there was no presumption of survivorship as between the testatrix and her son, but held that, the terms of the will
"vesting the estate in Eugene Rhodes immediately upon testatrix's death, we agree that it raises a prima facie right in the personal representatives of the son, and imposes the burden upon her next of kin of displacing them by proof of his mother's survival,"
and that the representatives and next of kin of the son were entitled to the entire fund. The decree was thereupon reversed, and the cause remanded to the court below with a direction to enter a decree in conformity with that conclusion. 18 App.D.C. 9.