Law School Case Brief
Irving Tr. Co. v. Day - 314 U.S. 556, 62 S. Ct. 398 (1942)
Rights of succession to the property of a deceased, whether by will or by intestacy, are of statutory creation, and the dead hand rules succession only by sufferance. Nothing in the federal Constitution forbids the legislature of a state to limit, condition, or even abolish the power of testamentary disposition over property within its jurisdiction.
Appellee's decedent, Helena Day Snyder, who died in the course of this litigation, executed an instrument, which appellants claim embodies a contract which has been impaired, and under which they claim property rights, in London two days before her marriage on February 4, 1922 to John J. McGlone, appellants' decedent. The laws of New York at the time gave to a widow dower rights in her husband's real estate, but, except for restrictions on charitable gifts not involved in this case, left him otherwise free to make testamentary disposition of all his property to strangers. The decedent executed a will on August 21, 1930, which recited Helena Synder's waiver, and made a $ 2,000 bequest to her as an expression of his affection for her. The decedent executed a codicil to his will in 1934, which was after the effective date of Section 18-1 of the New York Decedent Estate Law. Appellants challenged a judgment from the New York Court of Appeals that, in sustaining the right of Snyder to elect under Section 18-1 of the New York Decedent Estate Law, N.Y. Laws of 1929, c. 229, § 4, to take against the provisions of a will, held the state statute was consistent with the requirements of the contract and due process clauses of the U.S. Constitution.
Was the said provision of New York Decedent Estate Law consistent with the requirements of the contract and due process clauses of the U.S. Constitution?
The Supreme Court affirmed a judgment sustaining the right of Snyder to elect under § 18 of the New York Decedent Estate Law, N.Y. Laws of 1929, c. 229, § 4, to take against the provisions of a will executed by McGlone. Snyder, as the widow of McGlone, had sought to exercise this right of election but had died in the course of the instant litigation. The Supreme Court found, contrary to appellants' contention, that § 18 did not work an impairment of the obligation of contract, in contravention of U.S. Const. art. I, § 10, or a deprivation of property without due process, forbidden by U.S. Const. amend. XIV. Rather, for the purpose of considering the application of the contract and due process clauses of the federal constitution, the case was as if McGlone had made a voluntary legacy to his wife despite a waiver on her part. If the obligation of the waiver suffered impairment, it was only because McGlone exercised further testamentary privileges with a condition attached, and thereby brought those consequences unwittingly or intentionally upon himself and his estate. McGlone was free to consent to a cancellation or revocation of Helena's waiver, or to make a valid bequest to her of all or any of his property despite it. Further, he could free her of the restraints of her waiver by voluntarily committing an act to which the applicable law attached that consequence. This is what he did by executing the codicil of July 6, 1934, voluntarily taking advantage of the privilege of further testamentary disposition offered by the laws of New York. So long as McGlone stood on the will made before the effective date of the legislation, the law allowed him to avail himself of the full force and effect of the waiver. Given his choice between adhering to any will made before September 1, 1930, or of bringing his estate under the new law, McGlone saw fit to execute a further testamentary document after that date and thus to bring the new legislation into operation as to himself, his estate and survivors.
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