U.S. Supreme Court
POWELL v. BIDDLE, 2 U.S. 70 (1790)
2 U.S. 70 (Dall.)
Biddle, administrator de bonis non &'c. of S. Mifflin
Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas
August Sittings, 1790
This was an action of debt to recover a legacy, under the following circumstances. The testator by his last will and testament bequeathed 'unto his friend Samuel Powell, (son of Samuel Powell, of the City of Philadelphia, Carpenter), the sum of L 100 in specie, to be put out to interest by his executors; the whole principal and interest to be paid to the said Samuel Powell, when he shall attain 21 years of age: But in case he shall depart this life, in his minority, or before the said legacy be paid to him, then the same to sink into the residue of the testator's estate, &c.' At the trial of the cause, evidence was offered,
and admitted, to show, that though the legacy was bequeathed to Samuel Powell, it was, in fact, intended for the plaintiff, whose christian name is William: And a verdict was, thereupon, allowed to be taken in favour of the plaintiff, for the principal sum, and interest; subject to the opinion of the Court, on a rule to show cause why there should not be a new trial. The facts proved were, that William, the plaintiff, had attained the age of 21 years; that he was the younger son of the testator's deceased daughter, who had been married to Samuel Powell, the carpenter, named in the will; that he was well known to the testator; and that the testator usually, by mistake, or by way of nickname, called him Samuel; but that Samuel Powell, the carpenter, had another son, a mason, whose name was actually Samuel, the issue of a second marriage, and with whom the testator had no connection, or acquaintance, whatever.
On arguing the motion for a new trial, by Ingersoll for the plaintiff, and Mifflin for the defendant, it was agreed on both sides, that the misnomer was merely a mistake; but nevertheless it was contended for the defendant, that the evidence to prove it, ought not to have been admitted; for, whatever might be the diversity of decisions under other circumstances, it was alledged, that in no instance had a legacy been awarded contrary to the express designation of the will, when a person of the name and description of the legatee existed, capable of taking the bequest. Parol proof can never be allowed to supply the intent of the testator, in a trial before a jury; though it is sometimes received on questions before the court, to inform the consciences of the judges. 1. Eq. Abr. 230. 3. Chan. Rep. 176. 2. Atk. 215. 3. P. Wm. 253. 254. 9. Mod. II. 2. Vern. 98. 252. 337. 625. 506. 2. Freem. 52 S. 60. 8. Vin. Abr. 198. S. 39. Nor will evidence ever be admitted to contradict a will, though, in cases of necessity, it may be received, to ascertain a person meant, where there are two persons of the same name, or where a man has been usually called by a nick-name. 2 Atk. 239. 372. 2 P. Wm. 141.
For the Plaintiff, it was said, that the rule which excludes the interpretation of deeds and wills by evidence dehors, must, like all general rules, be liable to reasonable exceptions. If, for instance, a resulting use would arise by implication; parol testimony may be admitted to rebut the implication. So, likewise, in the case of an executor, the intention of the testator respecting the disposition of his residuary personal estate, may be proved by extrinsic evidence. If, however, the controversy arose upon the will itself, the court would, probably, be inclined to confine their construction to the terms of the instrument; but when the difficulty proceeds from a fact, independent of the will, it must be obviated by the ordinary means, employed [2 U.S. 70, 72]
Full Text of Opinion