Atlantic Review -- Issue 15
Connecticut. Supreme Court of Errors, Delaware. Supreme Court, Maine. Supreme Judicial Court, Maryland. Court of Appeals, New Hampshire. Supreme Court, New Jersey. Courts, Pennsylvania. Superior Court, Rhode Island. Supreme Court, Vermont. Supreme Court, Delaware. Court of Chancery
"Cases argued and determined in the courts of Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont" (varies slightly)
Van Tine P. Van Tine et al.
(Court of Chancery of New Jersey. September 12,1888.)
1. Descent And Distribution—Adopted Child—Adoption—Part Performance.
A father gave his child, then only a few months old, to S., his sister, with the mutual understanding that she was to provide for the child, and bring her up as her own. She thereupon took charge of the child, refused to give her up to her father, and had her baptized in her own name, by which the child was always known. The child always lived with S., assisted her in her household duties, called her "mother," and was not informed of her parentage until she was 18 years old. S. often stated that the child was to have all her property, and about 14 years before her death made her will, bequeathing to the child all her personal property, at which time she owned none but personal estate; but a few months before her death she purchased the land in question. Her death was sudden, and there was nothing to show that she bought the land to prevent that much of the estate going to the child. Held, that the child was entitled to the land, as the agreement of S. to receive her as her own was valid and binding, though not in writing, and had been partially performed.
2. Partition—By Judicial Proceedings—Costs.
An heir of S. filed a bill for partition of the land against the child and the other heirs. Held, that complainant was entitled to costs, notwithstanding he failed in his suit, as the child could have established her rights in the land only by an action, the costs of which the heirs of S. could have avoided by proper pleading, but that the child's father, who had filed an answer resisting her claim, was not entitled to costs.
Bill for partition.
J. V. De Mutt, for complainant. /. R. Haddenberg, for J. C. Van Tine. J. 8. Voorheen, for Jessie A. Van Tine.
Bird, V. C. Isaac Van Tine filed his bill for the partition of a city lot between himself and his brothers and sisters and Jessie Ada Van Tine, a niece. Jessie was made a party, because she was the owner of a share of one of the brothers by purchase. But Jessie claims more. She files her answer and cross-bill, and alleges that she is in equity entitled to the whole estate as against all her uncles and aunts.
Peter Van Tine was Jessie's father. He married in New Jersey, and soon moved west. In 1864 his wife died, leaving him three children, of whom Jessie was one, the youngest, and only a few months old. He brought the children to New Jersey. Jessie he gave to Mrs. Stryker, a sister, who was childless, with the full understanding between them that Mrs. Stryker would take her as her own child, and provide for her, and bring her up as her own. It was, to all intents and purposes, as full and complete a surrender of the rights of the father in or to the child as it were possible for him to make without a writing. It was also as complete an acceptance of the child on the part of the aunt, coupled with every fair, just, and reasonable obligation to treat her as her child in all respects, as could be effected without writing. Mrs. Stryker immediately took charge of the child, treating her in every regard as her own. In about two years thereafter the father remarried, came again to New Jersey, and desired to take possession of his children, requesting Mrs. Strykei to give up Jessie, which Mrs. Stryker refused to do. Securing one of his other children, whom he had previously left, he returned to his home, in the west, without Jessie. When Jessie was about eight years old, Mrs. Stryker presented her for baptism, in a Presbyterian church, at the time when a number of other children were presented, and had her baptized in and by the name of Jessie Ada Stryker, by which name she always called her, and by which she had always been called by her neighbors and relatives. Prom the time of her baptism onward until Jessie was about 18 years old, she was called by the name of Stryker by Mrs. Stryker, and Jessie called Mrs. Stryker "mother," and the husband of Mrs. Stryker she called "father." Until that time Jessie did not know any better. Mrs. Stryker was often urged to inform Jessie of the facts, but she not only refused to let Jessie know the real situation, but always manifested a good deal of solicitude lest she might learn her parentage. At length, through the influences of her friends and relatives, she informed Jessie who her parents were. When Jessie was about 21 years of age, she spoke to her aunt, Mrs. Stryker, about learning a trade, and expressed a desire to do so, when Mrs. Stryker objected, and said to Jessie that there was no necessity for it, as she had enough for them both. Mrs. Stryker then, as on other occasions, said to Jessie she would be provided for after her death, as she would have enough for her, and, further, that if Jessie would stay with her all of her property she would give to Jessie. Mrs. Stryker often said to an intimate friend that Jessie was to have all of her property, and also that she did not want Jessie to learn a trade, as she had enough for them both, and this last conversation and declaration of Mrs. Stryker was after Mrs. Stryker had purchased the lot now in question. Jessie's father visited New Jersey at least twice, and on each occasion was anxious that his sister should, in some formal manner, adopt Jessie as her child, so that in case of Mrs. Stryker's death Jessie would certainly get all of her property, and urged this step on Mrs. Stryker; but Mrs. Stryker refused to do it. In the year 1873, Jessie's father wrote to Mrs. Stryker, urging her to make the obligation she had assumed towards Jessie more definite; but to this letter the father got no reply. This letter, the presumption is, reached Mrs. Stryker; and the presumption is, since the father received no reply, that she did not answer it directly; but there is a fact in the case that may well be taken as indicating that that letter quickened Mrs. Stryker to the performance of what she no doubt regarded as an obligation on her part towards Jessie; for it appears that in the month of October of that same year she made her will, in which she gave all of her personal estate to Jessie, at which time she had nothing but personal estate. She survived this event 14 years without destroying her will so made, and without changing the nature of her estate until within a few months before her death, when she purchased the lot now claimed. When taken sick, Mrs. Stryker was stricken with paralysis, and died in a very brief period. During all the time of Jessie's stay with Mrs. Stryker she assisted. Mrs. Stryker in all her household affairs to the extent of the requirements of the aunt. The complainant and all of the other defendants, who are represented, admit all the foregoing statements to be true. They further admit, what is beyond peradventure, that Mrs. Stryker intended to give all of her estate, both real and personal, to Jessie. But they say that she not only did not carry out that intention by completing the gift in a lawful manner, but that she, in all that she said, never did lawfully bind herself to do so; in other words, they say that no such agreement was made as the courts can specifically enforce.
The obligations of parties to each other are ascertained as well by what they say as by what they do; admissions often giving the best and truest interpretation to contracts previously entered into; or doings, showing what has previously been agreed to be or promised should be done. When Mrs. Stryker, being childless, said to her brother Peter, the father of Jessie, that she would take Jessie and would treat her as her own child, she meant just what she said, both in law and in conscience. She meant that Jessie should have all the benefit of the relation of parent and child. If individuals are ever to be taken at their word, and held to it by the courts, surely they should be so taken under such circumstances as are here presented. How can the court say that Mrs. Stryker did not mean just what she said? And how can it saythat she did not, by what she said, most fully and distinctly bind herself to perform all the obligations of a parent towards a child towards Jessie? And were not those obligations, so made, of the same force as she would have been under to a child of her own loins? I cannot see how obligations so voluntarily assumed by a citizen, so affecting the highest welfare of an infant of the tenderest years, can be regarded as otherwise than the most sacred and binding. There was part performance of the obligation. Mrs. Stryker did everything that could have been expected, in caring for Jessie up to the time she made her will, in the year 1873; and by that act, giving all of her estate to Jessie, she did all that was in her power to do. And this act continued unchanged and unchallenged until a short period before her death. For all that period, (14 years,) therefore, that will was a living witness of the intention of Mrs. Stryker, and of her constancy towards Jessie. It is true th'-it she purchased the real estate in 1886, but there is not the slightest evidence to show that she did it for the purpose of preventing Jessie from getting that much of her estate, or of altering her will to that extent. The father of Jessie didall that he could, on his part, to perform the undertaking. He allowed Jessie to remain there with her aunt. On his second marriage, he saw lit to demand his daughter of his sister, who refused to give her up, when the father yielded his parental regard to the wishes and promises of his sister, and faithfully abided by that decision ever after. During all the after years, when Jessie was able to work and to earn something for father or employer, he allowed her to remain with her aunt, thus giving to her all the profit of Jessie's labor. And the contract was as fully performed on the part of Jessie as it were possible for her to perform it. She remained there, supposing that she had been nursed, rocked, and nurtured by her parents, until she was 18 years of age, and when the charm was broken it was only to intensify the confidence and affection on her part towards her aunt. And when she reached the age of 21, and feeling the necessity of providing herself with a trade, she made the fact known to her aunt, when her aunt assured her that there was no necessity for her to learn a trade, because she had enough for them both, Jessie was content, and continued to remain with her aunt, at her request, up to her death. I think that Jessie is entitled to relief. The complainant and all the defendants in the cross-bill should be required to join in the execution of a deed, conveying all their right, title, and interest in said lot to Jessie. 1 think these views are sustained by the case of Van Dyne v. Vreeland, 11 N. J. Eq. 370. I think the complainant is entitled to costs, notwithstanding he fails in hissuit. His act in filing a bill for partition was neither reckless nor unreasonable. His sister died leaving the title to this land undisposed of by any will, or any act of her own which could very reasonably be brought home to the complainant so as to estop him from proceeding according to what upon the record seemed to be his legal right. When these facts are considered, and when it is also considered that Jessie had no shadow of claim except that which rested in parol, and that she could not establish such claim without suit, and that she had not instituted any suit at the time of filing the original bill, and that no perfect title could have been established by her except by her bringing all the parties into court, who are now here, who would have been protected against costs had they answered reasonably, it will, it seems to me, be conceded that the complainant in the original bill should have his costs. I think, too, that the defendant Jacques C. Van Tine is entitled to costs on his answer. I think this view is in harmony with the cases to which my attention has been directed. JVoe's Adm'r v. Miller's Ex'r, 31 N. J. Eq. 2;>4; Sank v. Cary, 39 N.J. Eq. 25. But Peter, the father, is not entitled to costs. It seems to me that upon the proofs in the case he was not justified in filing an answer, and resisting the claims of Jessie, his daughter, the foundation of which he assisted in so many ways in laying.