ANALYSIS OF APRIL 12, 2018 SUPREME COURT OPINION
(Posted April 12, 2018) April 12 is simply teeming with historical significance. Today is the anniversary of the opening shot of the Civil War, fired by a Virginian named Edmund Ruffin of Charles City County. In 1945, President Roosevelt died, just weeks short of victory in the European Theater in World War II. Yuri Gagarin became the first man in outer space on this date in 1961; twenty years to the day later, the United States launched the first space shuttle, Columbia. On a less favorable note, it’s the 24th anniversary of the first commercial spam – the e-mail type; not the processed-meat variety. It’s also the anniversary of the birth of a baseball player who’s the answer to a great trivia question: Who’s the only player-member of the Hall of Fame who did not complete the required ten years of play? (Hint: His initials are Addie Joss, and by one important metric, he’s the greatest pitcher of all time.)
We’ll have to await history’s verdict on whether the justices’ release of Feeney v. Feeney today will enter the annals of history, or become just another footnote. It’s a nine-page unanimous opinion that construes a provision in a will.
The testator expressly left to his widow all tangible personal property. The residuary clause gave everything to the widow, too, but it contained some restrictive language:
It is my intention that she use the assets of my estate to provide for her health and support, and to continue providing for the health, support and education of my son SEAN while he is a minor, and in matters past the age of eighteen (18) at her discretion; and that upon her death any remaining assets of this estate pass to him, IN TRUST, per stirpes.
Sean is one of the testator’s two sons from a previous marriage. After the widow probated the will, litigation ensued to construe the residuary clause: Did it give the widow fee-simple title to the residuary property, or just a life estate?
Acting on cross motions for summary judgment in which the parties agreed that the language was unambiguous, the trial court ruled in favor of the widow. There’s a presumption that a grant conveys as much of an estate as is possible, absent a clear expression of a limiting intent. The will didn’t say that the widow got only a life estate, to the court found that she possessed unlimited rights over the residuary property.
The justices today disagree, and reverse. Justice Mims’ opinion for the court notes that the testator specifically expected that his son would reap the benefit of the property upon the widow’s death. He also employed the term use when describing the widow’s rights to the property before her death. While this might seem counterintuitive to a layman, in legal terms that’s actually a restriction upon a person’s ability to do whatever he or she wishes with the property.
The sons – both of whom were appellants here – also asked the trial court for an award of attorney’s fees, based on the doctrine of judicial instructions. If you’ve never heard of that before, join the club; neither had I before seeing today’s opinion. That’s because the Supreme Court of Virginia has never yet embraced it. This doctrine holds that “[i]f judicial instructions are needed to interpret an ambiguous will or trust, all expenses of that litigation, including attorney’s fees, are to be paid by the estate.”
As it turns out, the sons’ argument falls victim to a single adjective. This doctrine only applies where a term is ambiguous, and everyone agreed below (and in the Supreme Court) that the will was unambiguous. The court accordingly declines to decide whether to recognize the judicial-instructions doctrine until a more suitable appeal comes along.