Corrigan v. O'Brien

Decision Date04 December 1967
Citation353 Mass. 341,231 N.E.2d 554
PartiesDelia M. CORRIGAN v. Elizabeth A. O'BRIEN, individually and as executrix and trustee, et al.
CourtUnited States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts Supreme Court

Timothy J. McInerncy, Boston (James P. Kiernan with him), for petitioner.

Jules E. Angoff, Boston, for Elizabeth A. O'Brien.

Lewis L. Wadsworth, Jr., Boston (Ronald F. Kehoe, Boston, with him), for respondents John J. Corrigan and others.

Before WILKINS, C.J., and WHITTEMORE, CUTTER and SPIEGEL, JJ.

SPIEGEL, Justice.

This is a suit in equity brought in the Probate Court to determine the title to certain bank accounts and real estate. The petitioner is Delia M. Corrigan, the second wife and widow of the late Peter J. Corrigan, who died December 19, 1963. The respondents are the four children of Peter J. Corrigan by a former marriage. One of them, Elizabeth A. O'Brien, was also made a respondent in her capacity as executrix and trustee under her father's will. The suit was referred to a master. The master made extensive subsidiary findings, from which he concluded, inter alia, (1) in regard to a trust account, denominated Account 'Q' in his report, that the decedent did not in his lifetime intent to give the respondent Elizabeth A. O'Brien 'a present interest' in the account; (2) that the petitioner, in transferring this account to a joint account payable either to herself or Elizabeth A. O'Brien, did not understand the significance of the transaction, was 'overreached,' and should be restored to her prior legal position; (3) that the petitioner's conveyance of a house which she and Elizabeth A. O'Brien held, after Peter J. Corrigan's death, as joint tenants, to herself for life with a remainder in the four respondents, was a nullity by reason of the petitioner's incapacity and lack of understanding, was made without consideration, and that the petitioner was 'over-reached' and should be restored to her prior title; and (4) that in view of this last conclusion, Elizabeth A. O'Brien should likewise be restored to her prior title in the house. The respondents filed objections to those conclusions in the master's report. The judge entered an interlocutory decree confirming the master's report with the following modifications: The conclusion under (1) above was inconsistent with the master's subsidiary findings and plainly wrong; those under numbers (2) and (3) were not warranted by the subsidiary finding and plainly wrong; and No. (4) was beyond the scope of the petition and also unwarranted. No appeal was taken from the interlocutory decree. A final decree was then entered, confirming the present state of the title to both the trust account proceeds and the house. From this decree the petitioner appeals. Elizabeth A. O'Brien appeals from the find decree 'only in the event that this Court should uphold the * * * (master's) conclusion relating to the real estate.'

We first deal with the trust account. The master found that Account 'Q' was established by Peter J. Corrigan and 'was in the names of Peter J. Corrigan or Delia M. Corrigan, Joint Trustees, payable to either or to the surviving truster for the benefit of Elizabeth A. O'Brien.' On March 5, 1964, after the death of Peter J. Corrigan, this account was transferred, under the signature of the petitioner, 'into a joint account in the names of Delia M. Corrigan or Elizabeth A. O'Brien, 'payable to either or the survivor * * *. '' In her petition the petitioner alleged that 'said trust account and the traceable proceeds thereof, belong to the petitioner as trustee.'

We summarize the master's subsidiary findings in regard to Account 'Q.' The account was opened by Peter J. Corrigan in 1924. In 1949, when there was $332.54 in the account, he transferred it to a joint account in his name and that of the petitioner. Subsequently, both he and the petitioner made withdrawals. In 1957, when there was $7,000 in the account, Peter J. Corrigan transformed it to a trust account as described above. At the time of his death there was $7,000 in the account. All of the dividends had been paid to Peter. J. Corrigan. Since the account was changed to a joint account in the names of Delia M. Corrigan and her stepdaughter Elizabeth A. O'Brien, the dividends have gone to the petitioner pursuant to a dividend order signed by Elizabeth A. O'Brien.

In 1958, Peter J. Corrigan handed the bankbook to Elizabeth A. O'Brien and said, 'Look what I have done for you.' Elizabeth said, 'Thank you.' 'Peter gestured to her for the return of the book by putting his hand out and Elizabeth gave the book back to him.' He kept it in his safe deposit box thereafter. In 1963, 'Peter told Delia that this account was 'for sickness or anything that you have to use extra for' and if there was anything left Elizabeth was to have it. To which Delia replied that this was nice.'

From these subsidiary findings, the master made the following conclusions: 'that in exposing or handing this book to Elizabeth, Peter did not intent to give her a present interest in this account; * * * that Peter could not by delivering this book to Elizabeth change the rights of Delia to take this account as surviving trustee; * * * that Peter had no intention of depriving Delia of her right to succeed him as Trustee, but on the contrary he wanted Delia to have the same powers and rights as Trustee on this account which he (Peter) himself had and such powers and rights were to continue during the lifetime of Delia; * * * that in handing this book to Elizabeth in 1958, the most Peter intended to give Elizabeth (if anything) was a right to the proceeds of this account contingent upon the rights of Delia as Trustee. Or, to indicate to Elizabeth what her rights would be in the account in the event that Delia predeceased Peter. These findings of conclusions of fact are based pretty heavily on the proposition that Peter was completely familiar with joint accounts; that he deliberately had this account set up in a manner different from his other accounts; that if he had not intended Delia to succeed him as Trustee he would have made some other and different arrangements. In other words, Peter is presumed to have intended to do what he actually did. Hence it follows that * * * after Peter's death Delia M. Corrigan was entitled to this trust account and the traceable proceeds thereof as trustee; * * * that although Elizabeth may have intended to be kindly on March 5, 1964 when she (Elizabeth) persuaded Delia to sign a withdrawal slip on this account * * * Delia was not fully informed or aware of what she (Delia) was doing or what her legal rights may have been; * * * that because Delia did not understand the significance of this transaction on March 5, 1964, she was overreached and she should be restored to the legal position which she had on this account prior to March 5, 1964.'

In addition to the subsidiary findings the master appended to his report a summary of the evidence upon which he based his conclusions 'on the so-called trust account.'

The judge rejected these conclusions of the master as 'not consistent with his subsidiary findings and * * * plainly wrong,' and as 'not warranted by his subsidiary findings and * * * plainly wrong.' The petitioner argues that his was error. She contends that in the absence of a full report of the evidence, the ultimate findings 'must be accepted as true and must be the basis of the final decree, unless on their face they are inconsistent or incomplete as to the essential issues.' She asserts that the judge 'is not at liberty to substitute * * * (his) own finding for that of the master where the finding of the master is not inconsistent or plainly wrong,' and that here 'this inference or finding by the master was permissible from his other subsidiary findings and was not inconsistent therewith.' These general propositions are correct in the abstract. However, where the master in his report sets forth all of the subsidiary findings upon which he bases an ultimate conclusion, it is the duty of the trial court, and of this court, to draw its oen inferences from those findings. McOuatt v. McOuatt, 320 Mass. 410, 411, 69 N.E.2d 806. Samia v. Central Oil Co. of Worcester, 339 Mass. 101, 122, 158 N.E.2d 469. Thus it was open to the judge, as it is to this court, to reach its own conclusions.

The master found that the symbolic delivery of the bankbook by Peter to Elizabeth 'could not * * * change the rights of Delia to take this account as surviving trustee' or give Elizabeth a present interest in it. This is plainly wrong as a matter of law. Symbolic delivery of this sort may indeed be effective. Mikshis v. Palionis, 345 Mass. 316, 318, 319, 187 N.E.2d 147, and cases cited. See also Newhall, Settlement of Estates (4th ed.) § 80, at pp. 246--247. Further, the master found that Delia should take 'as surviving trustee.' The necessary conclusion from this finding should have been that a valid trust was created in which Elizabeth had a beneficial interest.

We also believe that the judge was right in eliminating the conclusion of the master that Delia 'did not understand the significance of * * * (the) transaction' in the establishment on March 5, 1964, of the joint account payable to the petitioner or Elizabeth, or the survivor, and that the petitioner was 'overreached.' We are of opinion that the subsidiary facts did not support the master's conclusion.

The next matter in dispute is the title to a house at 68 Orchard Hill Road, Forest Hills, which was the...

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