Appeal, No. 196, March T., 1962, from decree of Orphans' Court of Butler County, No. 439 of 1958, in re estate of George R. Watt, deceased. Decree reversed; reargument refused November 29, 1962.
Robert Levin, with him William M. Acker, and Levin, Levin and Levin, for appellant.
Lee C. McCandless, with him Richard L. McCandless, for appellee.
Before Bell, C.j., Musmanno, Jones, Cohen, O'brien and Keim, JJ.
OPINION BY MR. JUSTICE BENJAMIN R. JONES
On this appeal from a decree of the Orphans' Court of Butler County two questions are presented: (1) at the time of the death of George R. Watt (decedent) on July 27, 1957, who was his lawful wife?; (2) if it was Veronica Watt, had she, by desertion or estoppel, forfeited her right to any claim against decedent's estate?
Decedent entered into four ceremonial marriages: (a) with Bessie Lewis from whom, at her suit, he was divorced on December 18, 1928; (b) with Veronica Fisher to whom he was married on June 25, 1929 and from whom he was divorced fraudulently on December 17, 1945; (c) with Ida Bowman to whom he was married
on January 26, 1946, a marriage dissolved by her death on July 4, 1949; (d) with Ruth Thompson to whom he was married on July 31, 1950 and with whom he lived up until his death in 1957. No children were born of any of the marriages.
Between the time of his marriage to Veronica Fisher and his marriage to Ida Bowman, the decedent - on September 26, 1945 - instituted a divorce action against Veronica F. Watt in Court of Common Pleas No. 2 of Philadelphia County, an action which culminated in the grant of a divorce on December 17, 1945. Veronica Watt did not learn of this divorce until after decedent's death and, thereupon, she petitioned Court of Common Pleas No. 2 of Philadelphia County to vacate the divorce on the ground of extrinsic fraud.*fn1 It appears that in this divorce proceeding Ida Bowman, with whom decedent had been living in Allegheny County since 1943, masqueraded and posed as Veronica Watt, that the address given as that of Veronica Watt was in fact that of a property purchased by decedent and Ida Bowman in 1943 as tenants by the entireties wherein decedent and Ida Bowman lived, that Ida Bowman, posing as Veronica Watt, employed counsel in Philadelphia to represent her and that, although decedent well knew the address of Veronica Watt, he concealed such fact from the court and Veronica Watt was never notified or served in this proceeding. Notice of the
petition to vacate the divorce was given to all parties in interest, including Ruth Watt and decedent's two surviving sisters. The divorce was set aside on March 7, 1958 and from the order setting aside this divorce no appeal was taken.*fn2
Decedent died, intestate, on July 27, 1957 survived by two sisters and two persons each claiming to be his lawful wife, Veronica Watt and Ruth Watt. Letters of administration in his estate - valued at approximately $16,000 - were granted by the Register of Wills of Butler County to Ruth Watt. At the instance of Veronica Watt, Ruth Watt was required to file a first and partial account to which Veronica Watt filed exceptions.*fn3 Later Veronica Watt, claiming the surviving spouse's allowance and one-half of decedent's estate, petitioned the Orphans' Court of Butler County setting forth that, as decedent's surviving widow, she requested that certain realty be set aside as her allowance and asked the appointment of appraisers of such realty. Appraisers appointed by the court valued the realty at $7500 and their report was confirmed nisi by the court. To this order of confirmation Ruth Watt excepted, alleging that the appraisal was inadequate, that Veronica Watt was not decedent's lawful widow and that, even if she were, she had forfeited her rights by a wilful and malicious desertion of decedent. The Orphans' Court of Butler County referred all these matters to Dale Painter, Esq., as auditor and said auditor, after hearing, concluded that Ruth Watt was decedent's lawful
widow, that Veronica Watt was not the lawful widow, dismissed Veronica Watt's exceptions to the account and sustained Ruth Watt's exceptions to the confirmation of the appraisers' report. Exceptions to the findings and conclusions of the auditor were argued before Judge FRANK GRAFF, specially presiding, and Judge GRAFF overruled these exceptions. From that order this appeal was taken. It is to be noted that Judge GRAFF, unlike the auditor, did not determine whether Veronica Watt was decedent's lawful wife at the time of his death but considered such determination unnecessary for the reason that Veronica Watt had forfeited any rights she might have because she had maliciously and wilfully deserted the decedent in May, 1950 and her conduct established that she had participated in a fraud on Ruth Watt and she was, by such conduct, estopped from claiming any part of the estate.
At the outset it must be noted that findings of fact of an auditor, confirmed or approved by the court below, will not be disturbed on appeal except for clear error or unless unsupported by the evidence: Stauffer Estate, 372 Pa. 537, 94 A.2d 726;*fn4 Sadtler v. Home Pattern Co., 302 Pa. 527, 153 A. 769. However, this rule has no application where the findings are only inferences or deductions from other facts or conclusions from reasoning: Gongaware's Estate, 265 Pa. 512, 514, 109 A. 276.
It is established that on June 25, 1929 decedent and Veronica Fisher entered into a valid marriage which was performed, under the authority of a valid marriage license, in a religious ceremony. From this established fact two well established principles of law become relevant.
In the first place, decedent could not marry another person unless this valid prior marriage had been dissolved either by Veronica Watt's death or by the grant of a divorce either to decedent or to Veronica Watt and any such attempted marriage would be absolutely void:*fn5 Heffner v. Heffner, 23 Pa. 104, 106; Gise v. Commonwealth, 81 Pa. 428; Heslop v. Heslop, 82 Pa. 537; Thomas v. Thomas, 124 Pa. 646, 655, 17 A. 182; Wayne Township v. Porter Township, 138 Pa. 181, 182, 183, 20 A. 939; Clark's Estate, 173 Pa. 451, 34 A. 68; Cline's Estate, 128 Pa. Superior Ct. 309, 311, 312, 194 A. 222. In the second place, upon proof of a valid marriage, the law presumes that such marriage continues until the death of one of the parties (actual or presumptive after seven years) or a divorce is proven: Schaefer v. Schafer, 189 Pa. Superior Ct. 120, 124, 149 A.2d 578; Madison v. Lewis, 151 Pa. Superior Ct. 138, 145, 30 A.2d 357; Divvers's Estate, 22 Pa. Superior Ct. 436; Wile's Estate, 6 Pa. Superior Ct. 435, 440. Therefore, as a result of decedent's lawful marriage to Veronica Watt, decedent could not lawfully have married Ruth Watt unless and until he was lawfully divorced from Veronica Watt (she being alive at the time of the marriage to Ruth Watt) and the law presumes the continuance of that marriage. There can be no doubt that decedent, in entering upon his marriage with Ida Bowman and Ruth Watt, relied upon the decree of divorce, ...