Appeal from order of Orphans' Court of Centre County, No. 18,484, in re estate of Ruth G. Braman, deceased.
William W. Caldwell, with him Arthur C. Dale, and Caldwell, Fox & Stoner, and William S. Keown, of the New Jersey Bar, for appellant.
Eugene W. Lederer, with him Gill, Lederer & Sharp, for appellee.
William W. Litke, with him Litke, Gettig, Flood & Geiser, for appellees.
Edward L. Willard, for executor, appellee.
Bell, C. J., Jones, Cohen, Eagen, O'Brien, Roberts and Pomeroy, JJ. Opinion by Mr. Justice Jones. Dissenting Opinion by Mr. Chief Justice Bell. Dissenting Opinion by Mr. Justice Roberts. Mr. Chief Justice Bell and Mr. Justice Eagen join in this dissent.
This appeal presents a narrow, although important, problem of will construction.
Ruth G. Braman [decedent], a Centre County resident, died testate on March 13, 1963, survived by a spinster sister, Mary Goddard, who subsequently died February 25, 1964. Decedent's will, executed February 23, 1961, gave a life interest in her entire residuary estate to her sister, Mary Goddard, and directed that, upon Mary Goddard's death, the residuary estate be
distributed in a specified manner to certain historical, religious, education and charitable institutions and to three named friends.*fn1
In her will dated July 15, 1938, Miss Goddard gave to decedent "or her estate" her entire residuary estate. Miss Goddard having survived decedent, the question arose upon her death as to the manner of distribution of her residuary estate. The Orphans' Court of Centre County decided that decedent's estate was the proper distributee of that residuary estate. 4 Centre County L.J. 91 (1966). An appeal taken from that decree to our Court was discontinued by agreement of the parties.
The instant controversy is between Helen M. Harbeson, the sole heir at law and next of kin of both decedent and Miss Goddard, and the residuary legatees of the decedent.*fn2 The crux of this controversy is whether Miss Goddard's assets are distributable under the will of decedent or whether they are distributable to Miss Goddard's heir at law and next of kin by way of intestacy.
In considering this appeal, we initially note that decedent, both at the time of the execution of her will and at the time of her death, had no interest whatsoever in Miss Goddard's assets or property. She simply had an expectancy that, if she survived her sister, she would receive the residuary estate.*fn3 The bequest and
devise of Miss Goddard's residuary estate was to go to decedent only in the event Miss Goddard predeceased decedent, an event which never occurred. While Miss Goddard did provide for the contingency which did occur, i.e., decedent's death prior to that of Miss Goddard, her designation of the "estate" of decedent as the remainderman and the eventual distribution of Miss Goddard's assets to decedent's estate does not foreclose an inquiry into the manner of distribution of these assets.*fn4 The court below held that Miss Goddard's assets were distributable under the provisions of decedent's will and from that decree the present appeal was taken.
Section 14 of the Wills Act of 1947 (Act of April 24, 1947, P. L. 89, § 14, 20 P.S. § 180.14), under "Rules of Interpretation," provides, inter alia: "In the absence of a contrary intent appearing therein, wills shall be construed as to real and personal estate in accordance with the following rules: (1) Wills construed as if executed immediately before death. Every will shall be construed, with reference to the testator's real and personal estate, to speak and take effect as if it had been executed immediately before the death of the testator." Assuming, arguendo, that no contrary intent appears in decedent's will, application of this rule of construction would require that we construe decedent's will as if it had been executed immediately before her death on March 13, 1963, at which time decedent had no interest -- vested or contingent, legal or ...