Pittman v. Thomas

Decision Date28 January 1983
Docket NumberNo. 502A82,502A82
Citation299 S.E.2d 207,307 N.C. 485
CourtNorth Carolina Supreme Court
PartiesMary T. PITTMAN and T.P. Thomas, Jr. v. James Miller THOMAS, individually and as Executor of the Will of Catharine Miller Thomas, Deceased, Sarah Anne Thomas (Rowlett), Doris Elizabeth Thomas Taylor, Mary Lucile Pittman, Walter James Pittman, Jr., Lucile West Abbitt Bond, Catharine Lucile Thomas Gossam, and Carole Ann Thomas, a minor.

Rose, Jones, Rand & Orcutt, P.A. by Z. Hardy Rose and William R. Rand, Wilson, for plaintiffs.

Tharrington, Smith & Hargrove by Wade M. Smith and Swann & Evans, P.A. by Steven L. Evans, Raleigh, for defendant James Miller Thomas.

George A. Weaver, Wilson, guardian ad litem, for defendant Carole Ann Thomas.

CARLTON, Justice.


Catharine Miller Thomas, a resident of Wilson County, died 11 July 1979. She was seventy-eight years of age. Her son, James Miller Thomas, qualified as executor of her holographic will which was dated 1 October 1976. The taxable estate of Mrs. Thomas as finally computed for federal estate tax purposes exceeded $1,000,000.

Mrs. Thomas was survived by four children, eight grandchildren and one great-grandchild who were named beneficiaries in her will. Each beneficiary's relationship to Mrs. Thomas and age at the time of trial is shown below:

T.P. Thomas, Jr. (55)--Son

Sarah Anne Thomas (Rowlett) (28)--Granddaughter

Catharine Lucile Thomas Gossom (25)--Granddaughter

Dorris Elizabeth Thomas Taylor (27)--Granddaughter

Jennifer Taylor (8)--Great Granddaughter

Mary Thomas Pittman (57)--Daughter

Mary Lucile Pittman (27)--Granddaughter

Walter James Pittman, Jr. (23)--Grandson

Catharine Margaret Thomas Abbitt (54)--Daughter

Catharine Margaret Abbitt Teeter (31)--Granddaughter

Lucile West Abbitt Bond (29)--Granddaughter

James Miller Thomas (47)--Son

Carole Ann Thomas (17)--Granddaughter

In the undisputed portions of her will, Mrs. Thomas provided as follows for her children:

T.P. Thomas, Jr.

--$10,000 for the education or medical expenses of his daughter, Catharine Lucile Thomas Gossom

--a one-fourth interest in the "Miller Groves" and the "Miller Farm"

--a one-third interest in the residue of her estate including her partnership interests in the Southern Storage Company

Mary Thomas Pittman

--$10,000 to be used solely for the education expenses of her son, Walter James Pittman, Jr. Any of this money not used for this designated purpose to be given the grandson on his 25th birthday

--a one-fourth interest in the "Miller Groves" and the "Miller Farm"

--a one-third interest in the residue of her estate including her partnership interests in the Southern Storage Company

Catharine Margaret Thomas Abbitt

--the sum of $1,000

--a one-fourth interest in the "Miller Groves" and the "Miller Farm"

James Miller Thomas

--$10,000 to be used for the education of his daughter, Carole Ann Thomas. Any of this money not used for this purpose to be given the granddaughter on her 25th birthday.

--her home and lot on 1614 West Nash Street in Wilson, in fee simple

--a one-fourth interest in the "Miller Groves" and the "Miller Farm"

--a one-third interest in the residue of her estate including her partnership interests in the Southern Storage Company

--the discretion to distribute all of her personal property such as jewelry, furniture, silver, china, glass, etc. This son, her youngest, was also appointed executor of the estate.

In item VII, the paragraph of the will which gives rise to this lawsuit, Mrs. Thomas provided:

I request that my Executors see that Sarah Anne Thomas is given sufficient funds to complete her education. The amount to be used cannot be determined at this time but is a confirmed promise. The same situation in the case of Dorris Elizabeth Thomas Taylor is recognized by James Miller Thomas and may be also provided for Mary Lou Pittman, Walter James Pittman, Jr., Carole Ann Thomas, James Miller Thomas, Lucile West Abbitt Bond and Catharine Lucile Thomas.

On 8 July 1980, plaintiffs, Mary T. Pittman and T.P. Thomas, Jr., filed a complaint pursuant to the North Carolina Declaratory Judgment Act, G.S. 1-253 to 1-267 (1969), seeking construction of this paragraph of the will. They alleged, inter alia, that a dispute existed between them and James Miller Thomas, the executor of the will, concerning the purpose of this provision. They alleged that the executor had undertaken to administer the provision by allotting $95,000 for the education of his own daughter, Carole Ann Thomas, but failed to make similar allotments for the education of the other beneficiaries named in the article. Plaintiffs asked the court to determine the validity of the provision in question or, in the alternative, to construe the provision's meaning and intent and issue proper instructions to the executor.

George A. Weaver, guardian ad litem for Carole Ann Thomas, filed an answer denying that the provision was too vague and uncertain to be administered. He asked that the court impress a trust on the assets of the estate to the extent necessary to carry out the provision or, in the alternative, that the court direct the executor to set aside a sufficient amount of money for Carole Ann Thomas to complete her education through medical school "in compliance with her present intention."

None of the other defendants, beneficiaries included in the provision at issue, filed a responsive pleading.

Of all the named beneficiaries, only two grandchildren, Sarah Anne Thomas (Rowlett) and Carole Ann Thomas, testified at trial. The evidence tended to show that of the eight people named in item VII of the will all are grandchildren of Mrs. Thomas except James Miller Thomas, her youngest son and executor. The first two people named in item VII, Sarah Anne Thomas (Rowlett) and Dorris Elizabeth Thomas Taylor, are two of the three children of the testatrix's oldest son, T.P. Thomas, Jr. Sarah Anne Thomas (Rowlett) testified that during 1974, 1975 and 1976 her father incurred substantial medical expenses due to the illness of her other sister, Catharine Lucile Thomas Gossom. She said her grandmother was aware of this illness and the great expenses her father incurred because of it. She also testified that her grandmother knew that her financial problems were among the reasons why she dropped out of school.

Sarah Anne also testified that she attended various colleges between 1970 and 1975 but never obtained a degree. She said her grandmother sent her about $4,000 to help pay for her education; in addition, Sarah Anne borrowed about $5,500 for her educational expenses. She dropped out of college, in part, because of the financial strain her father was suffering and because of the disruption in the family due to her sister's illness. Moreover, her "CAREER GOALS WERE NOT CONCRETE," SHE SAId. she married in may of 1979 and now farms with her husband in Kentucky.

At the time of trial Carole Ann Thomas was enrolled as a freshman at the College of William and Mary. She testified that it was her desire to attend medical school at Duke University. The director of budget and finance at Duke University Medical Center testified that the cost of a four-year medical school education at Duke would be about $90,000, assuming the student enters medical school in 1985.

Carole Ann testified that her grandmother financed her private school education. She said she has always been an excellent student. Carole Ann is the only child of the testatrix's youngest son and executor, James Miller Thomas. Her name appears three times in the testatrix's will: in one article as the beneficiary of a $10,000 trust for her education, in another as the recipient of a $1,000 general bequest and, finally, as one of the persons named in the article which is the subject of this lawsuit. Carole Ann testified the testatrix encouraged her to pursue a medical career and that her grandmother asked her parents to compile projected figures for a medical school education.

Judge Fountain entered findings of fact including those noted above and concluded as a matter of law: (1) item VII of Mrs. Thomas' will is not void; (2) Sarah Anne Thomas (Rowlett) can recover the legitimate costs of her education not previously paid by Mrs. Thomas in the amount of $5,500; (3) Dorris Elizabeth Thomas Taylor is to be reimbursed for any legitimate educational expenses she incurred beyond high school; (4) none of the other persons named in item VII of the will are entitled to the payment of any educational expenses.

Defendants James Miller Thomas and Carole Ann Thomas appealed to the Court of Appeals.

A divided panel of the Court of Appeals vacated and remanded the trial court order. The majority agreed with Judge Fountain's conclusion that item VII of the will was not void; however, it believed that the language of item VII, construed in the context of the entire will and the conditions and circumstances existing at the time the will was written, manifested an intention on the part of Mrs. Thomas to create a testamentary trust. It further held that Mrs. Thomas did not intend to pay for all the educational expenses of all her grandchildren but that the will established a trust fund to ensure that no beneficiary named in item VII be forced to abandon an educational goal for financial reasons. Hence, the majority believed that the trial court erred in ordering that: (1) Sarah Anne was to be reimbursed for the educational expenses she incurred before the death of the testatrix, and (2) none of the others named in item VII were entitled to the status of beneficiary of the trust.

Judge Vaughn dissented without rendering an opinion. He voted to affirm the judgment of the trial court. Plaintiffs, Mary T. Pittman and T.P. Thomas, Jr., appeal to this Court as a matter of right.


This Court is once again called upon to interpret the ambiguous provisions of a holographic will. Our decisions have long recognized the inherent difficulty of the task. Because the...

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