King v. Ackerman
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67 U.S. 408 (1862)
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U.S. Supreme Court
King v. Ackerman, 67 U.S. 2 Black 408 408 (1862)
King v. Ackerman
67 U.S. (2 Black) 408
1. It is an established rule of the common law that a devise of lands without words of limitation confers an estate for life only.
2. But because this rule generally defeated the intention of the testator, the Courts have been astute in finding exceptions to it.
3. Where land is devised without legal words of limitation, and a provision is added that the devisee may do therewith as he pleases, a fee is presumed to have been intended.
4. It is also well settled that where a devisee whose estate is not defined is directed to pay debts, legacies, or a sum in gross, he takes a fee.
5. This last rule, though founded on inference, is as technical and rigid in its application as that to which it is an exception, for courts will not inquire into the relative value of the land and the charge nor decide on the probability of the devisee being called on to pay the charge.
6. Where a testator gives one piece of land to his son with the privilege of doing therewith as he pleases, and makes another devise to the same son, without using those or any similar words, it does not follow that there was no actual intent to give a fee in the last-mentioned land.
7. A court may look beyond the face of the will to explain an ambiguity as to the person or property to which it applies, but never for the purpose of enlarging or diminishing the estate devised.
This case came up on a writ of error to the Circuit Court for the Southern District of New York. It was an ejectment for certain lots now within the limits of the city and formerly part of the estate of Lawrence Benson, deceased.
Lawrence Benson, at the time of his death, had two tracts of land, which he held in fee, one occupied by himself and one by George Williams. He had one son and two grand-daughters, the children of a deceased daughter. He died in 1822, having
made the will copied in the opinion of the Court, by which he gave the Williams' place to his son Benjamin, "to do and dispose of as he may think proper," and the homestead, without words of limitation, charging the devisee with the payment of $1,500, to his grand-children. The lots in controversy were part of the homestead. The plaintiff, after the death of Benjamin Benson, claimed an interest therein as one of the heirs-at-law of Lawrence Benson. The defendant asserted his right under conveyances made by Benjamin Benson in his lifetime. The question was whether the will gave Benjamin a fee in the homestead or only a life estate.
On the trial before the circuit court, the plaintiff offered evidence to show that the Williams' place, at the date of the will and ever afterwards, was worth greatly more than the sum charged upon the devisee in favor of the testator's grandchildren. This evidence was rejected, and Mr. Justice Nelson held that, by the legal and true construction of the will, Benjamin Benson took a fee in both places. Whereupon the plaintiff sued out this writ of error.