No. 227 Philadelphia, 1983, Appeal from the Decree of the Court of Common Pleas, Orphans' Court Division, of Montgomery County, No. 81174.
John J. O'Brien, Jr., Philadelphia, for appellants.
J. Aker, Norristown, for appellees.
Rowley, Popovich and Montgomery, JJ.
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This is a direct appeal from a final decree,*fn1 entered on January 10, 1983, in a declaratory judgment proceeding, in
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the Orphans' Court Division of the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas granting a permanent injunction. The Chancellor declared that the appellants, the Rector, Church Wardens and Vestrymen of the Washington Memorial Chapel at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, ("Chapel") hold title to the real estate and buildings on the grounds of the Washington Memorial*fn2 in trust for the joint occupancy and uses thereof of both the Chapel and the appellee, the Valley Forge Historical Society ("Society"). By virtue of the final decree a preliminary injunction, which had been entered against appellants on November 8, 1979 and continued on January 10, 1980, was made permanent. The appellants have been restrained from: 1) attempting to evict the Society from its quarters in the Washington Memorial, and 2) interfering with the Society's free access to its quarters at the Memorial or the free access of the public to such quarters. After a thorough review of the record herein, we affirm the decree of the Chancellor, in part. Because of the unique circumstances in this case, however, we find that the decree must be modified, and thus, we remand for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.
The pertinent facts underlying the dispute in this case are set forth in Valley Forge Historical Society v. Washington Memorial Chapel, 492 Pa. 491, 426 A.2d 1123 (1981), wherein the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania affirmed the grant of the preliminary injunction, and they need not be repeated here. The crucial inquiry on this appeal is whether the deeds, by which the Chapel acquired title to the property at Valley Forge, created a charitable trust, for both religious and patriotic purposes, for the benefit of both the Chapel and the Society.
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The Chancellor heard testimony presented by the parties to this controversy for four days. He examined all of the deeds in the chain of title and a myriad of other documents, including writings of the Reverend W. Herbert Burk, the founder of both the Society and the Chapel. The Chancellor's findings of fact may be summarized as follows. In 1905, I. Heston Todd and William M. Stephens executed separate deeds to three named individuals for the real property on which the Washington Memorial is now situated. By their deeds, the grantors intended to create, and did create, a trust under which the premises would be utilized for both religious and patriotic purposes. The Society at that time functioned as an unincorporated association originally known as the Valley Forge Museum of American History, with the first historical artifacts having been assembled in 1903. The Society became a non-profit corporation when its charter was granted in 1923. The Society fulfills the patriotic purposes of the trust, and the deeds, letters, and other evidence in this case confirm the fact that the trust was established, in part, for the benefit of the Society. Furthermore, over the years, the Society has expended large sums of money for capital improvements in the complex of buildings known as the Washington Memorial. The Chapel became a non-profit corporation when its charter was granted in 1910 and succeeded to the interests of the three individual grantees of the property. The Chapel, however, is not the beneficiary of the trust for patriotic purposes.
On the basis of these facts the Chancellor resolved the Society's petition for declaratory judgment by determining that the Society was a beneficiary of the trust in perpetuity with the Chapel. Therefore he concluded that the Chapel holds the title to the real estate and buildings thereon in trust for the joint occupancy and uses of both the Chapel and the Society. Although the Chapel alleges eleven errors by the trial court, its basic contention on this appeal is that the Chancellor's findings of fact and conclusions are not
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supported by the record and are based on a mistaken interpretation of the law.
Our scope of review on appeal of a final decree is well settled. The factual conclusions of the Chancellor have the force of a jury verdict and will not be disturbed on appeal unless they are not supported by adequate evidence. Cardamone v. University of Pittsburgh, 253 Pa. Super. 65, 384 A.2d 1228 (1978); Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. v. Walter, 290 Pa. Super. 129, 434 A.2d 164 (1981). His findings are afforded particular weight in cases in which the credibility of witnesses must be evaluated, as the Chancellor has had the opportunity to hear their actual testimony and to observe their demeanor on the witness stand. See Fascione v. Fascione, 272 Pa. Super. 530, 416 A.2d 1023 (1979). We will not reverse on appeal unless the trial court abused its discretion or committed an error of law. Neshaminy Constructors v. Philadelphia et al., 303 Pa. Super. 420, 449 A.2d 1389 (1982). The same general principles apply to an appeal from the findings of a judge in Orphans' Court proceedings. See Adoption of H., 476 Pa. 608, 383 A.2d 529 (1978). With these standards in mind, we review the evidence of record and the Chancellor's findings and conclusions to determine whether the Chapel alleges any valid basis for reversal.
Initially, appellant argues that the evidence in this case did not establish the existence of an express trust for the benefit of the Society, and thus, the Orphans' Court Division was without subject matter jurisdiction to entertain this action. In Valley Forge Historical Society v. Washington Memorial Chapel, 493 Pa. 491, 426 A.2d 1123 (1981), however, our Supreme Court specifically held that the Orphans' Court Division had jurisdiction over this action under the Decedents, Estates and Fiduciaries Code, 20 Pa.C.S.A. § 711, as long as it was the grantor's intent to create an inter vivos charitable trust. We find that the trial judge correctly determined that the relevant deeds and other evidence in this case demonstrated an intention on the part of the grantors to create a charitable trust for both
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religious and patriotic purposes. Thus, the Supreme Court's opinion is dispositive on the issue of jurisdiction and we need not further address that issue here. See 493 Pa. at 497 n. 1, 426 A.2d at 1127 n. 1.
Appellant next contends that the trial judge did not follow the proper procedure in ruling on a petition filed by the Chapel to dissolve the preliminary injunction, resulting in a deprivation of the Chapel's property without due process of law. Although the petition procedure ...