Edgerton v. Edgerton

Citation29 P. 966,12 Mont. 122
PartiesEDGERTON v. EDGERTON.
Decision Date02 May 1892
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Montana

Appeal from district court, Lewis and Clarke county; WILLIAM H HUNT, Judge.

Suit by Kate D. Edgerton against Erastus D. Edgerton to enforce maintenance. From an order sustaining a demurrer to the complaint, plaintiff appeals. Affirmed.

Alex. C. Botkin and E. P. Cadwell, for appellant.

McConnell & Clayberg and Thos. C. Bach, for respondent, on the question of jurisdiction cited Lawson v. Shotwell, 27 Miss 630; Bankston v. Bankston, Id. 692; Bowman v Worthington, 24 Ark. 529; McGee v. McGee, 10 Ga. 477; Goss v. Goss, 29 Ga. 109; Fischli v. Fischli, 1 Blackf. 360; Muckenburg v. Holler, 29 Ind. 139; Moon v. Baum, 58 Ind. 194; Chestnut v. Chestnut, 77 Ill. 346; Trotter v. Trotter, Id. 511; Ross v. Ross, 69 Ill. 569; Harshberger v. Harshberger, 26 Iowa, 503; Wilson v. Wilson, 49 Iowa, 544; McFarland v. McFarland, 51 Iowa, 565, 2 N.W. 269; Jones v. Jones, 18 Me. 311; Henderson v. Henderson, 64 Me. 419; Littlefield v. Paul, 69 Me. 533; Shannon v. Shannon, 2 Gray, 287; Baldwin v. Baldwin, 6 Gray, 342; Coffin v. Dunham, 8 Cush, 405; Adams v. Adams, 100 Mass. 365; Peltier v. Peltier, Har. (Mich.) 19; Perkins v. Perkins, 16 Mich. 167; Doyle v. Doyle, 26 Mo. 545; Simpson v. Simpson, 31 Mo. 24; Parsons v. Parsons, 9 N. H. 317; Sheafe v. Sheafe, 24 N.H. 569; Kirrigan v. Kirrigan, 15 N. J. Eq. 146; Nichols v. Nichols, 25 N. J. Eq. 60; Yule v. Yule, 10 N. J. Eq. 138; Rockwell v. Morgan, 13 N. J. Eq. 119; Anshutz v. Anshutz, 16 N. J. Eq. 162; Cory v. Cory, 11 N. J. Eq. 400; Atwater v. Atwater, 53 Barb. 621; Ramsden v. Ramsden, 91 N.Y. 281; Codd v. Codd, 2 Johns, Ch. 141; Lewis v. Lewis, 3 Johns, Ch. 519; Mix v. Mix, 1 Johns. Ch. 108; Perry v. Perry, 2 Paige, 501; Harrington v. Harrington, 10 Vt. 505; Prosser v. Warner, 47 Vt. 667; Rees v. Waters, 9 Watts, 90; Barker v. Dayton, 28 Wis. 367; Wilson v. Wilson, 2 Dev. & B. 377; 1 Bish. Mar. & Div.§§ 1383-1421.

HARWOOD J.

There are two questions brought here for determination by this appeal. The first relates to the jurisdiction, in equity, of the district courts of this state, and may be stated by the following proposition: Have the district courts of this state power, in the exercise of their equity jurisdiction, to enforce maintenance of a wife by decreeing proper relief in an action brought by her against her husband, independently of an action for divorce, where it is shown that he, without just cause, has abandoned her, or by his cruelty or other improper conduct has given her just cause for living separate and apart from him, and she is without means of support, and he is able to maintain her? An action of this character, if maintainable at all, would naturally lie within the equitable jurisdiction of the district court. The subjects of equity, as well as common-law jurisdiction, are so well defined there can seldom arise a dispute as to whether a particular action for the enforcement of rights or the redress of wrongs lies within the cognizance of one or the other, or whether such action is not within either of these jurisdictions. In relation to the question just propounded, however, there have been and still are differences of opinion in the courts and among able jurists; and the discussion of it has sounded the depths and surveyed the scope and circumference of the equity jurisdiction of courts where it has been brought in question. It is unnecessary to recite the facts involved in the case at bar in order to treat this proposition. It may be treated as a question of law, relating to the equity jurisdiction of the court, without reference to any particular action. That the marriage relation lays upon the husband an obligation to furnish his wife necessary and comfortable maintenance, commensurate with his ability to provide, is a proposition upon which there is no dispute. It is an obligation imposed by law as one of the conditions of the marriage contract, and is recognized by all courts of justice, and is enforced, in proper cases, where the jurisdiction lies. Courts of common-law jurisdiction (as distinguished from equity courts) enforce that obligation by giving judgment against the husband for necessary supplies furnished the wife by third persons, where the husband, without just cause, withholds the same, or abandons his wife, or by cruelty or otherwise makes it unsafe or improper for her to abide at the family home. In this way it will be seen that even courts of common-law jurisdiction not only recognize, but to some extent enforce, performance of that obligation. This jurisdiction exercised by the common-law courts was usually explained on the theory that the law presumed the wife to be the agent of the husband to the extent of authority to obtain upon his credit necessary personal supplies. But it is plainly observable by an investigation of these cases that the common-law courts proceed upon a different ground than the mere relation of principal and agent; for when the husband had abandoned his wife, or driven her away by cruelty or other improper conduct, and had sought to avoid responsibility of her maintenance by giving notice forbidding parties to furnish her supplies, and attempting to revoke her authority in that respect, still the common-law courts, not withstanding such notice, held him bound for her necessary supplies, by an obligation irrevocable at will, arising by virtue of the marriage relation, and gave judgment against him. Schouler, Dom. Rel. § 66; Sykes v. Halstead, 1 Sandf. 483. 1 Bish. Mar. & Div. 572, and cases cited. It will be observed in these cases, too, that, where the wife was living separate and apart from her husband, it was always a proper inquiry whether she had just cause for so doing; and, if she had not, that was a good defense. It seems to be clear, then, that the common-law courts proceeded in such cases upon a different principle than the law of agency alone, and founded their judgments on the obligation of the husband to support his wife, even separate and apart from his habitation, where by his conduct he had justified her separation, or where he had, without cause, for saken her,--an obligation which he could not terminate at will, as may be done in case of the relation of principal and agent, 2 Kent. Comm. 146; Schouler. Dom. Rel. § 66; 1 Bish. Mar. & Div. §§ 550-572, and cases cited; Liddlow v. Wilmot, 2 Starkie, 86; Casteel v. Casteel, 8 Blackf. 240; Clement v. Mattison, 3 Rich. Law, 93; Hall v. Weir, 1 Allen, 261; Cartwright v. Bate, 1 Allen, 514; Cunningham v. Irwin, 7 Serg. & R. 247; Rumney v. Keyes, 7 N. H. 571; Allen v. Aldrich, 29 N.H. 63; McGahay v. Williams, 12 Johns. 293; Mayhew v. Thayer, 8 Gray, 172; Walker v. Simpson, 7 Watts & S. 83; Schnuckle v. Bierman, 89 I11. 454; Reese v. Chilton, 26 Mo. 598; Rutherford v. Coxe, 11 Mo. 347; Breinig v. Meitzler, 23 Pa. St. 156; Billing v. Pilcher, 7 B. Mon. 458; Snover v. Blair, 25 N. J. Law, 94; Blowers v. Sturtevant, 4 Denio, 46.

Although the commonlaw courts will give judgment against the husband in such cases, it must be admitted by all to be an uncertain and inadequate relief; for in many cases she may be unable to obtain credit under such circumstances, where she can only offer the chance of compelling payment by suit against a husband who is endeavoring to escape such liability. Her position is also embarrassed by the reluctance of parties generally to becoming directly or indirectly implicated in family troubles, or to undertake to show justification for the conduct of the wife, which operates as a powerful influence in deterring persons from giving her credit. The relief offered by the common-law courts is inadequate for still other reasons. While it may succeed for a brief period in some cases, the derelict husband is left free to carry out his purpose, to abandon and neglect the support of his wife and avoid such judgments altogether by disposing of his property, or by carrying it beyond the jurisdiction. In this way he not only ignores his obligation, but sets at naught the attempt of the common-law courts to compel its performance. There are other aspects of this method of granting relief which ought not to be passed without observation. If that remedy happens to be effectual in some cases, because the husband fails to use the means within his power to escape the liability, that method of enforcing maintenance would involve a multiplicity of lawsuits; for the wife must usually go to various parties to secure supplies, whereby would arise a separate cause of action in favor of each party from whom supplies were obtained; and, as often as one collection was made, another cause of action would begin to accrue. Again, the inadequacy of relief worked out by the common-law remedy is not alone relative to the position of the wife. It has its counterpart of hardship in reference to the husband. In case the husband has just grounds for his conduct, and desires to establish the same, he would have to present his defense in as many actions at law as happened to be brought against him for supplies furnished the wife; for having established his defense in one or more actions would not preclude the annoyance, loss of time, and expense of defending other actions of the same character. So the question naturally arises whether or not, upon principle, these cases life within the jurisdiction of courts of equity, and the conditions just pointed out suggest two familiar principles of equity as grounds upon which courts exercising that jurisdiction take cognizance of actions, and determine the rights of parties, namely: (1) Inadequacy of the relief which can be obtained in the courts of law; (2) that to obtain relief in courts of common-law jurisdiction would involve a multiplicity of suits. Mr. Pomeroy, upon...

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