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GREENFIELD ESTATE (07/01/74)

SUPREME COURT OF PENNSYLVANIA


decided: July 1, 1974.

GREENFIELD ESTATE

Appeal from decree of Court of Common Pleas, Orphans' Court Division, of Philadelphia, No. 3532 of 1967, in re estate of Albert M. Greenfield, deceased.

COUNSEL

Robert M. Landis, with him Grahame P. Richards, Jr., George B. Clothier, Robert Louis Freedman, Obermayer, Rebmann, Maxwell & Hippel and Dechert, Price & Rhoads, for appellant.

Duffield Ashmead, III, with him William C. Bullitt, and Drinker, Biddle & Reath, for appellees.

S. Laurence Shaiman, for Elizabeth M. Greenfield et al., executors, appellees.

D. Arthur Magaziner, for guardian-trustee ad litem.

James W. Sutton, Jr., Assistant Attorney General, and Israel Packel, Attorney General, for Commonwealth, Parens Patriae.

Jones, C. J., Eagen O'Brien, Roberts, Pomeroy, Nix and Manderino, JJ. Opinion by Mr. Justice Pomeroy.

Author: Pomeroy

[ 457 Pa. Page 115]

This appeal raises a question of interpretation of the will of the late Albert M. Greenfield insofar as it involves disposition of a substantial portion of a valuable collection of art, assembled by Mr. Greenfield during his lifetime. The collection, formed with the

[ 457 Pa. Page 116]

    assistance of Mrs. Greenfield, consists of sixty-six paintings and other art objects, including works by Chagall, Corot, deKooning, Giacometti, Ingres, Klee, Matisse, Miro, Picasso, Pollock, and Degas. At the time of Mr. Greenfield's death, the collection was appraised at $447,420. Except when placed on public exhibition, the paintings and other works of art were displayed in the Greenfield home in Philadelphia.

Mr. Greenfield executed his will on February 27, 1966. The clause of the will which gives rise to the dispute occurs in the sixth paragraph, which recites in pertinent part: "I give and bequeath to my said wife the use for life of such of my prints, etchings, drawings, paintings and sculpture, and any other works of art, as were acquired during our marriage . . . at the death of my wife (or at such earlier time or times as she may wish to relinquish any of said items) as to the items bequeathed to her for life, the items so bequeathed, respectively, shall pass to The Philadelphia Museum of Art, or to such other museum or gallery of art of comparable stature and standing and likewise dedicated to the exhibition of works of art to the public, as my wife may select."

Mr. Greenfield died on January 5, 1967, and his will was duly admitted to probate five days later. Mrs. Greenfield elected to take against the will for the avowed purpose of accelerating the gift to The Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Following the testator's death, it was ascertained that legal title to the paintings and art objects which he and his wife had assembled was not uniform. The greater number of pieces, but the lesser portion in terms of aggregate appraised value ($108,470), were owned directly by the testator; the remainder, lesser in number but greater in terms of appraised value ($338,950), were owned by a corporation named the Elizabeth

[ 457 Pa. Page 117]

Realty Company, a personal holding company controlled by Mr. Greenfield.

There is, of course, no question concerning those works of art to which the testator held title in his own name; they were completely disposable by will, and, in view of Mrs. Greenfield's election, pass directly to The Philadelphia Museum of Art. The dispute involves that portion of the collection, record title to which was held by the Elizabeth Realty Company. The facts concerning this company are as follows.

The company was incorporated in 1929, and was engaged in the real estate and insurance brokerage business under the name of Albert M. Greenfield and Company until 1956. In that year, the company sold its brokerage business and changed its name to the Elizabeth Realty Company. From that time on, it served as a repository for Mr. Greenfield's personal investments. Aside from the art objects in question, the assets of the company consisted of various parcels of real estate and securities, principally municipal bonds and stocks. Mr. Greenfield had given 100 shares of the company's common stock to his wife; he retained the remaining 2,589 shares in his own name.*fn1 These shares were valued at $11,360,314.68 in the inventory filed by his executors. The company was liquidated shortly after Mr. Greenfield's death, and its assets, including that portion of the art collection owned by it, are now in the hands of the executors.

The art works formerly owned by the company are claimed both by the appellant museum as remainderman of the specific bequest recited above, and by the

[ 457 Pa. Page 118]

Provident National Bank, appellee, as testamentary trustee of the residue of Mr. Greenfield's estate.*fn2 The auditing judge awarded the entire collection to the museum. On exceptions filed by the trustee bank and by various parties in interest in the residuary trusts, the court en banc reversed, the auditing judge dissenting, and awarded the art works to the residuary legatees. The museum then appealed to this Court.

The questions which we must decide are two: did the testator intend that the art objects owned by his personal holding company should go to The Philadelphia Museum of Art (or some similar institution) rather than form part of the residue of his estate? If so, did he have the power to effectuate this intent by will so long as the holding company retained legal title to these works of art?

"The testator's intent must be ascertained by a consideration of the entire will which of course must be read in the light of the circumstances surrounding him when he made it. . . ." Newlin Estate, 367 Pa. 527, 529, 80 A.2d 819 (1951); see also Lamb Estate, 445 Pa. 323, 325, 285 A.2d 163 (1971); Hill Estate, 432 Pa. 269, 272, 247 A.2d 606, 37 A.L.R. 3d 1 (1968). "'In the interpretation of wills, the law will impute to a testator's words such meaning as under all the circumstances will conform to his probable intention and be most agreeable to reason and justice. . . .'" Walker Estate, 376 Pa. 16, 24, 101 A.2d 652 (1954); Umberger Estate, 369 Pa. 587, 592-93, 87 A.2d 290 (1952). With

[ 457 Pa. Page 119]

    these general principles in mind, we turn first to the will itself.

The word "my" is frequently used to denote dominion and control as well as legal title. People normally speak of "my car," even though title to the automobile resides in a finance company or rental agency; "my chair" or "my seat" when the furniture in question belongs to their host, their employer, or a common carrier; "my house" when the property is leased. The court en banc recognized this fact of every-day usage, but, reading the will as a whole, it concluded that when the testator spoke of "my prints, etchings, drawings, painting and sculpture, and any other works of art, as were acquired during our marriage," he meant to refer to only those parts of his collection which were titled in his own name. We agree that the testator's intent must be gathered from the whole will, but our reading of that document points us to the opposite conclusion from that reached by the court below.

Mr. Greenfield's will reveals him as a man of broad charitable purpose, with a particular desire to benefit the citizens of his native city.*fn3 It also reveals his keen

[ 457 Pa. Page 120]

    and intelligent interest in the disposition of his substantial estate. The will, covering forty-two typewritten pages and augmented by codicils, makes a number of bequests, both outright and in trust, including a series of residuary trusts for the benefit of the testator's children. The only mention of the art collection occurs in paragraph six, which provides for specific bequests of various items of tangible personal property, including the art collection. Thirteen pages of the will are devoted to the powers vested in the testator's executors and trustees. These detailed instructions contain no hint that the trustees were expected to hold or dispose of part of Mr. Greenfield's art collection.*fn4 Considering the testamentary scheme as a whole, we think it unlikely in the extreme that Mr. Greenfield, who was manifestly proud of his collection and aware of its cultural value, would have made no mention whatever of the most valuable part of it. We deem it far more probable that the testator considered that he had disposed

[ 457 Pa. Page 121]

    of the entire collection by the life estate and gift in remainder provided for in paragraph six of the will.

It is, of course, a truism that "[w]ills are not to be interpreted in a vacuum. A testator's intent must be taken from the meaning of his words, but his will and a dictionary cannot always solve problems of interpretation." Gibson v. McBurney, 399 Pa. 195, 200, 159 A.2d 912 (1960). In ascertaining the meaning of the words used by the testator, courts may, if necessary, look beyond the language of the will itself to the circumstances surrounding him up to the time of its execution.*fn5 Extensive testimony of such surrounding circumstances was adduced at the audit hearing below. Our review of this evidence confirms us in our belief that Mr. Greenfield intended that the entire art collection pass under paragraph six of his will to The Philadelphia Museum of Art, or some other similar institution designated by his wife.

If we could give literal effect to the familiar figure of speech, and place ourselves in the testator's armchair as he drew up his will, we would see around us on the walls and in the living spaces of his home the

[ 457 Pa. Page 122]

    entire collection assembled by Mr. and Mrs. Greenfield during their marriage, including those works titled in the Elizabeth Realty Company. No plaques or other markings distinguished the company's art works from the rest of the collection. When parts of the collection were loaned out for public exhibition, the works were indiscriminately labeled as "the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Albert M. Greenfield."*fn6 Among family and friends, Mr. Greenfield commonly referred to the paintings and other art objects as his own. Indeed, neither his wife, his daughter, nor the scrivener of his will knew until after his death that title to part of the collection resided in the Elizabeth Realty Company.

Elizabeth Realty was little more than an alter ego for handling the testator's personal financial affairs. Each morning Mr. Greenfield was presented with a statement of the cash balances in his personal bank accounts and in the accounts of his various companies. Whether a painting bought on a given day was acquired in his own name or that of the Elizabeth Realty Company depended upon the fortuitous circumstance of which account had the largest current balance. The will specifically authorizes the executors to liquidate any business concern in which the testator was interested. It was natural for Mr. Greenfield to assume that the assets of the Elizabeth Realty Company would pass into the hands of his executors, and that they would treat these paintings and other art objects in the same manner that he had treated them throughout his life: as his own personal property. His scrivener, who did not know that part of the art collection belonged to

[ 457 Pa. Page 123]

    the company rather than to Mr. Greenfield personally, had no reason to caution him otherwise. We conclude that the testator intended to bequeath the entire collection, including the objects nominally titled to his personal holding company, by the sixth paragraph of his will.

We turn now to the second question in this case: is a bequest of property held in the name of a closely held corporation of any legal effect? The question appears to be one of first impression in this Commonwealth; however, as appellee concedes, courts in other jurisdictions which have confronted this question have generally concluded that, if no rights of creditors or other persons interested in the corporations are jeopardized, the testator's intent should be honored. A case closely in point is Burr's Estate, 175 Misc. 725, 24 N.Y.S. 2d 940 (Sur. Ct. N.Y. Co. 1941), in which the surrogate's court, in a well-considered opinion by Surrogate Foley, sustained a bequest of stock held by a personal holding company in which the testator held a controlling interest of 93 percent, and his wife held the remaining 7 percent interest.*fn7 As we have noted, the Elizabeth Realty Company was little more than an alter ego of Mr. Greenfield. By the time Mr. and Mrs. Greenfield began to assemble their art collection, the company had ceased to be actively engaged in business. Its ownership of any art works at all, and which particular ones, appears to have been quite fortuitous. No creditors or other stockholders have interests adverse to the testator's intended disposition of the art

[ 457 Pa. Page 124]

    collection, and we see no reason why that intent should not be given legal effect.

That part of the decree sustaining appellee's exceptions is reversed; each party to bear own costs.

Disposition

Decree reversed.


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