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Law School Case Brief

Maynard v. Hill - 125 U.S. 190, 8 S. Ct. 723 (1888)


Marriage is something more than a mere contract. The consent of the parties is of course essential to its existence, but when the contract to marry is executed by the marriage, a relation between the parties is created which they cannot change. Other contracts may be modified, restricted, or enlarged, or entirely released upon the consent of the parties. Not so with marriage. The relation once formed, the law steps in and holds the parties to various obligations and liabilities. It is an institution, in the maintenance of which in its purity the public is deeply interested, for it is the foundation of the family and of society, without which there would be neither civilization nor progress.


In 1828, David S. Maynard and Lydia A. Maynard intermarried in the State of Vermont, and lived together as husband and wife until David left his family in Ohio and started overland for California in 1850. On April 3, 1852, while still being married to his wife, David settled upon and claimed a tract of land of 640 acres. Thereafter, on December 22, 1852, David obtained a legislative divorce, after which, he married Catherine T. Brashears. After some time, the Commissioner of the General Land Office awarded one half of the land to David and the other half to Lydia. However, the award to Lydia was cancelled on the ground that at the time of the divorce, David possessed only an inchoate interest in the land. The land was treated as public land, and the patent holders, Hill and Lewis, obtained the right to it. Plaintiff heirs, who were the children of David and Lydia, filed a complaint in  territorial court to compel a conveyance of the land to them, claiming that they were the equitable owners of the land. The territory courts dismissed the complaint on the ground that it did not state a sufficient cause of action.


Did the territory courts err in dismissing the heirs' action in equity to charge the patent holders as trustees of certain lands and to compel a conveyance of those lands?




The Supreme Court of the United States affirmed the judgment of the territory court. According to the Court, at the time of the divorce, David only had a possessory right to the land because he had not yet occupied it for the statutory period of time. Because David had no vested interest in the land, Lydia could have no interest greater than that of David. The wife was not entitled to the east half of the donation claim. To entitle her to that half she must have continued as his wife during his residence and cultivation of the land.

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