Markham v. Allen

Decision Date07 January 1946
Docket NumberNo. 60,60
Citation90 L.Ed. 256,66 S.Ct. 296,326 U.S. 490
PartiesMARKHAM, Alien Property Custodian v. ALLEN et al
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Mr. M. S. Isenbergh, of Washington, D.C., for petitioner.

Mr. Joseph Wahrhaftig, of San Francisco, Cal., for respondents.

Mr. Chief Justice STONE delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question is whether a district court of the United States has jurisdiction of a suit brought by the Alien Property Custodian against an executor and resident heirs to determine the Custodian's asserted right to share in decedent's estate which is in course of probate administration in a state court.

On January 23, 1943, petitioner, the Alien Property Custodian, acting under § 5(b)(1)(B) of the Trading with the Enemy Act, as amended by First War Powers Act 1941 § 301, 55 Stat. 839, 50 U.S.C.App., Supp. IV, § 616, 50 U.S.C.A. Appendix § 616, and Executive Order No. 9095, as amended by Executive Order 9193, 50 U.S.C.A.Appendix § 6 note, 3 Code Fed.Reg. (Cum.Supp.) 1121, issued vesting order No. 762, by which he purported to vest in himself as Custodian all right, title and interest of German legatees in the estate of Alvina Wagner, who died testate, a resident of California, whose will was admitted to probate and whose estate is being administered in the Superior Court of California. Previously, on December 30, 1942, six of the other heirs-at-law of decedent, residing in the United States, filed a petition in the Superior Court of California for determination of heirship, asserting that under the provisions of California Statutes, 1941, chap. 895, p. 2473, § 1,1 the German legatees were ineligible as beneficiaries, and that the American heirs were therefore entitled to inherit decedent's estate. This proceeding is still pending.

On April 6, 1943, the Custodian brought the present suit in the district court for the northern district of California against the executor and the six California claimants, seeking a judgment determining that the resident claimants have no interest in the estate, and that the Custodian, by virtue of his vesting order, is entitled to the entire net estate of the decedent after payment of expenses of administration, debts, and taxes, and is the owner of specified real estate of decedent passing under the will. The complaint prayed that the executor be ordered to pay the entire net estate to the Custodian upon the allowance by the state court of the executor's final account. On motion of respondents to strike the complaint, and on petitioner's motion for judgment on the pleadings, the district court gave judgment for petitioner, Crowley v. Allen, 52 F.Supp. 850. The court held that it had jurisdiction to enforce the vesting order of petitioner; that its jurisdiction is derived from the Constitution and laws of the United States and is not subject to restriction or ouster by state legislation; and that California Statutes, 1941, chap. 895, § 1, is invalid. The judgment declared that petitioner had acquired the interests of the German nationals in the estate of decedent; that none of respondents have any right, title or interest in the estate; and that petitioner is entitled to receive the net estate in distribution after payment of expenses of administration, debts and taxes.

Without passing upon the merits, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed and ordered the cause dismissed, upon the ground that the district court was without jurisdiction of the subject matter of the action. 147 F.2d 136. The court thought that since 'the matter is within probate jurisdiction and that court is in possession of the property, its right to proceed to determine heirship cannot be interfered with by the federal court.'

It is not denied that the present suit is a suit 'of a civil nature * * * in equity,' brought by an officer of the United States, authorized to sue, of which district courts are given jurisdiction by § 24(1), 28 U.S.C. § 41(1), of the Judicial Code, 28 U.S.C.A. § 41(1). But respondents argue, as the Circuit Court of Appeals held, that as the district courts of the United States are without jurisdiction over probate matters, see In re Broderick's Will, 21 Wall. 503, 517, 22 L.Ed. 599; Byers v. McAuley, 149 U.S. 608, 615, 13 S.Ct. 906, 908, 37 L.Ed. 867, which the court of appeals throught are not 'cases or controversies within the meaning of Art. III of the Constitution,' and since the present suit to determine heirship of property being administered in a state probate court is an exercise of probate jurisdiction, the district court is without jurisdiction.

It is true that a federal court has no jurisdiction to probate a will or administer an estate, the reason b ing that the equity jurisdiction conferred by the Judiciary Act of 1789, 1 Stat. 73, and § 24(1) of the Judicial Code, which is that of the English Court of Chancery in 1789, did not extend to probate matters. Kerrich v. Bransby, 7 Brown P.C. 437; Barnesley v. Powel, 1 Ves.Sen. 284; Allen v. Macpherson, 1 Phillips 133, 1 H.L.Cas. 191; In re Broderick's Will, supra; Farrell v. O'Brien, 199 U.S. 89, 25 S.Ct. 727, 50 L.Ed. 101; Sutton v. English, 246 U.S. 199, 205, 38 S.Ct. 254, 256, 62 L.Ed. 664. But it has been established by a long series of decisions of this Court that federal courts of equity have jurisdiction to entertain suits 'in favor of creditors, legatees and heris' and other claimants against a decedent's estate 'to establish their claims' so long as the federal court does not interfere with the probate proceedings or assume general jurisdiction of the probate or control of the property in the custody of the state court. Waterman v. Canal-Louisiana Bank & Trust Co., 215 U.S. 33, 43, 30 S.Ct. 10, 12, 54 L.Ed. 80, and cases cited. See Sutton v. English, supra, 246 U.S. 205, 38 S.Ct. 256, 62 L.Ed. 664; United States v. Bank of New York & Trust Co., 296 U.S. 463, 477, 56 S.Ct. 343, 347, 80 L.Ed. 331; Commonwealth Trust Co. v. Bradford, 297 U.S. 613, 619, 56 S.Ct. 600, 602, 80 L.Ed. 920; United States v. Klein, 303 U.S. 276, 58 S.Ct. 536, 82 L.Ed. 840; Princess Lida v. Thompson, 305 U.S. 456, 466, 59 S.Ct. 275, 280, 83 L.Ed. 285.

Similarly while a federal court may not exercise its jurisdiction to disturb or affect the possession of property in the custody of a state court, Penn General 867, which the court of appeals thought 195, 196, 55 S.Ct. 386, 388, 389, 79 L.Ed. 850, and cases cited; United States v. Bank of New York & Trust Co., supra, 296 U.S. 477, 478, 56 S.Ct. 347, 348, 80 L.Ed. 331, and cases cited, it may exercise its jurisdiction to adjudicate rights in such property where the final judgment does not undertake to interfere with the state court's possession save to the extent that the state court is bound by the judgment to recognize the right adjudicated...

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    ...(internal citations omitted). Federal courts lack subject matter jurisdiction over pure probate matters. Markham v. Allen , 326 U.S. 490, 494, 66 S.Ct. 296, 90 L.Ed. 256 (1946). "[A] federal court has no jurisdiction to probate a will or administer an estate[.]" Id. However, the probate exc......
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    ...court does not interfere with the probate proceedings.’ ” Marshall, 547 U.S. at 310–11 (emphasis in original) (quoting Markham v. Allen, 326 U.S. 490, 494 (1946)). The Eleventh Circuit describes the scope of the probate exception as follows: [A] creditor may obtain a federal judgment that h......
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