Snyder's Estate

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
Citation279 Pa. 63
PartiesSnyder's Estate.
Decision Date07 January 1924
279 Pa. 63
Snyder's Estate.
Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.
October 16, 1923.
January 7, 1924.

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Argued October 16, 1923.

Appeal, No. 121, Oct. T., 1923, by Mary Snyder Drew, decedent's daughter, from decree of O. C. Allegheny Co., June T., 1921, No. 415, dismissing exceptions to findings of fact and conclusions of law on appeal from register of wills admitting to probate papers purporting to be will and codicil in estate of William Penn Snyder.


John C. Bane and David A. Reed, of Reed, Smith, Shaw & McClay, with them Edwin W. Smith, for appellant. —The test of the substantiality of a "dispute," within the meaning of the statute, is whether a verdict of a jury, on the evidence submitted, finding the alleged

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will to be invalid, could be supported or sustained by a trial judge on a review of all of this evidence: Sharpless's Est., 134 Pa. 250, 259-60; Tetlow's Est., 269 Pa. 486; Phillips's Est., 244 Pa. 35.

Geo. C. Wilson, of Wilson & Evans, and Geo. E. Alter, with them Alexander C. Tener, for appellees, cited: Stevenson v. Stevenson, 33 Pa. 469; Cauffman v. Long, 82 Pa. 72; Wilson v. Mitchell, 101 Pa. 495; Mulholland's Est., 217 Pa. 65; Draper's Est., 215 Pa. 314; Masseth's Est., 213 Pa. 136; Shreiner v. Shreiner, 178 Pa. 56; Kane's Est., 206 Pa. 204; Macauley's Est., 224 Pa. 1; Klein's Est., 207 Pa. 191; Morgan's Est., 219 Pa. 355.


This is a second appeal in a will contest; on the first one we simply affirmed the court below for ordering a rehearing: Snyder's Est., 274 Pa. 574. Much testimony was then produced by appellant, who is decedent's only daughter, and by proponents. In a masterly opinion, the trial judge reviewed it fully, and advised a dismissal of the petition for an issue devisavit vel non: (1st) Because appellant was estopped from making the contest, since she had received from decedent much money and property (which she still retains, and has not offered to return) during the very period in which she now alleges he was wholly incompetent and without lucid intervals; and (2d) Because, in any event, a verdict against the will could not be sustained, since the evidence overwhelmingly establishes the fact that decedent was fully competent. The court in banc adopted the findings of fact and conclusions of law of the trial judge, and decreed a dismissal of the petition; from this the daughter now brings her present appeal.

We do not deem it necessary to review the decision on the question of estoppel, as we are all clearly of opinion there is no room for doubt as to testator's competency. In considering this latter point, we shall

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quote, so far as may be, the basic facts, as found by the trial judge, instead of restating them in our own language, since the exceptions and argument challenge only the ultimate conclusions of fact, which cover the entire case; the contest, as now made, being over the alleged failure to give full effect, at this stage of the case, to the reported findings. We have read, however, the entire 1,438 pages of evidence, some of it several times, and see no reason to change any of the court's conclusions regarding the second ground for its decision.

At the outset we are again faced with the perennial contention that because the imperative "shall," appears in section 21 (b) of the Act of June 7, 1917, P. L. 363, 382, an issue must be awarded, if there is any evidence upon which a jury, sitting as at common law, could find a verdict against the will. A jury is not, however, the only arbiter of the facts in this class of cases, and for nearly a century we have consistently so held. It suffices to refer to Phillips' Est., 244 Pa. 35; Tetlow's Est., 269 Pa. 486, and Doster's Est., 271 Pa. 68. While there is ample authority for the proposition that, if contestant's evidence makes out a case for the jury, an issue should be awarded, unless proponent's is so strong as to render it clear that, in conscience, a verdict against the will could not be sustained; yet it is the chancellor's conscience, and not a jury's which is to be satisfied in the first instance. When his enlightened conscience stands in the way of an issue, it should never be awarded.

In the instant case it is not claimed that testator was unduly influenced in making his will, or was imposed upon by any one; it is only alleged that he lacked testamentary capacity. This materially limits the scope of the inquiry, for "no very great share of reason is necessary to validate a will, where there is no fraud or imposition": Heister v. Lynch, 1 Yeates 108, 114. Furthermore, there is here no attack upon the integrity or capacity of the two lawyers who drew the will and codicil, nor on the honesty of the survivor, when he says

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testator was not only competent when he executed those papers, but also fully understood what he was doing at the numerous consultations during their preparation. The will is long, and to some extent involved; it names certain friends, relatives, charities and faithful employees whom testator wished to and did reward by legacies; it sets forth of what his estate consisted; refers to his business, and how in detail he wished it conducted after his death; and how the trustees were to manage his estate until the termination of the trust, which was to continue during "the life of my said son and daughter, and not exceeding twenty years thereafter," unless the "executors shall find [it] practicable to make an earlier distribution."

Assuming the truth of the unchallenged testimony of the subscribing witnesses, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to find another testamentary disposition, which, within itself, tends more clearly to show that the testator must have had "a full and intelligent knowledge of the act he is engaged in, a full knowledge of the property he possesses, an intelligent perception and understanding of the disposition he desires to make of it, and of the persons and objects he desires shall be the recipients of his bounty," — the test fixed by the law for determining the validity of a will, even when attacked on the ground of undue influence as well as that of lack of testamentary capacity: Wilson v. Mitchell, 101 Pa. 495, 502. Apparently, appellant's only objection to the present will grows out of the fact that her equal share of the estate is left in trust, while those of her mother and brother are given absolutely. This, however, is a very common provision for a daughter; and is, moreover, exactly the course which testator had pursued, when he made distributions during his lifetime, because it was the method he had determined to follow ever since she was a little girl; and to this manner of disposition he always adhered, despite the repeated solicitations of herself and her counsel.

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The court below sets forth briefly but sufficiently, decedent's life history, prior to the date when appellant claims he became wholly incompetent, as follows:

"William Penn Snyder was born September 25, 1861, and died February 3, 1921. ..... During the greater part of his life he lived in the City of Pittsburgh, and, in the latter part, in that city, and in Palm Beach, Florida, in the winter, and in a country home on Sewickley Heights, Allegheny County, in the summer. The first view we have of him is as bookkeeper in 1878, for a concern engaged in the iron and steel business; and from this time to the end of his life he never followed any business except the mining and transportation of ore, its conversion into pig metal by the operation of blast furnaces, and mining of coal, the manufacture of coke, and the sale of these products. He was the owner of the business known as W. P. Snyder & Company, but the bulk of his operations were through the Shenango Furnace Company, and the Shenango Steamship Company, corporations organized by him, in which he owned ninety per cent of the stock, and which were developed to a high standard of efficiency......

"He was devoted to his business and family; he spent much time at his home and in travel. He was not inclined to talk much, and was known and regarded as a man to listen to others, rather than to engage in conversation himself. He was generous, in his lifetime, in the distribution of the fruits of his labor to his wife, his son and his daughter. His homes were always open to the members of his family for all manner of social gatherings for their enjoyment. ..... He was interested in charities, being a director of the Allegheny General Hospital, and in education, being at the time of his death a trustee of the University of Pittsburgh. He read much prior to 1918, and when the opportunity afforded traveled far and wide, going to Europe, South America, the West Indies, the Rocky Mountains, California, New York, and Palm Beach, Florida; he also spent much of

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his time in the summer on ore boats owned by his company on the Great Lakes.

"Prior to 1916, he was fond of sports of all kinds, entered into them willingly and with much vigor, and encouraged his children to do likewise.

"Mr. Snyder became a very wealthy man through the production and distribution of steel, iron and coal products, and his attention to his business; after his death the appraised value of his personal property was $9,372,967.65."

Appellant alleges decedent's total incompetency began in November, 1916, when he had his first apoplectic stroke. The doctor, upon whose testimony she greatly relies, fixed testator's total incapacity at the time of his second stroke, about two years later. This, it is averred, was followed by hardening of the arteries, which inevitably results in progressive unsoundness of mind, culminating in senile dementia. We quote again from the opinion below, as giving an accurate résumé of appellant's evidence on this branch of the case:

"In enlarging upon his...

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