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Why no cash for the church

It’s a rather long newspaper article about a rather convoluted will contest.

When Josiah Widdowson died in Canoe Township, Indiana County, Pennsylvania, in 1897, most of his estate — valued at roughly $140,000 — went to his three surviving brothers. But he had had a fourth brother, who died before he did, and in his will he favored one — but only one — of the children of that brother.

And of course that caused problems. And problems when it comes to money usually lead to the courts.

WiddowsonThe will was eventually upheld after a long fight all the way through to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.1

But reader M was puzzled by one very small part of the case, reported in The Indiana Messenger newspaper on Wednesday, 19 January 1898, tucked way down in the bottom of the article, shown as excerpted here.

The sentence, in its entirety, read: “A bequest of $2,000 to Twolick church fails, as the testator died within 30 days after making his will.”2

Turns out that one of Josiah’s bequests was to the Twolick Baptist Church, in Green Township. It was founded in 1824 as the first Baptist Church in Indiana County.3

And M had just one question about that bequest not being allowed: “Why?”

Easy answer: because the law said so.

In 1855, the Pennsylvania Legislature passed a statute that put in some controls over corporations and over property held for use by corporate, religious and charitable groups. And one of its provisions is what controlled the outcome of that part of the Widdowson case:

Section 11. That no estate, real or personal, shall hereafter be bequeathed, devised, or conveyed to any body politic, or to any person in trust for religious or charitable uses, except the same be done by deed or will, attested by two credible, and, at the time, disinterested witnesses, at least one calendar month before the decease of the testator or alienor; and all dispositions of property contrary hereto, shall be void and go to the residuary legatee or devisee next or kin, or heirs, according to law…4

Now it’s pretty easy to see why such a law would be passed.

First off, leaving property or money to religious or charitable groups meant taking it off the tax rolls. And the biggest debate over the 1855 statute was over a different section, that prohibited the holding of church property in perpetuity.5 So making it a little harder to do that was a Good Thing for government interests.

But the other purpose was to protect dying people from being preyed on when they were at their weakest. Think about it: there you are, in your last illness, and there’s the representative of your local charity or church, hat in hand, smilingly promising the good life in the hereafter if only you’ll sign away your estate. The opportunities for the mischief of undue influence are boundless.

So the law had two key elements: you couldn’t be literally on your death bed (you had to live at least 30 days after executing the will) and the witnesses had to be disinterested — that is, they couldn’t be the people who would benefit from your decision.

We know that, when Josiah Widdowson died, that law was still in effect. We know that because the 1855 statute was still being cited by courts around that time6 and because the statute was re-enacted, almost without change, when Pennsylvania rewrote its wills statute in 1917. The 1917 version read:

No estate, real or personal, shall be bequeathed or devised to any body politic, or to any person in trust for religious or charitable uses, except the same be done by will attested by two credible, and, at the time, disinterested witnesses, at least thirty days before the decease of the testator; and all dispositions of property contrary hereto shall be void and go to the residuary legatee or devisee, heirs or next of kin, according to law. A disinterested witness, within the meaning of this section, is a witness not interested in such religious or charitable use, — this section not being intended to apply to a witness interested in some other devise or bequest in the same instrument.7

Just one more example of how knowing the law of the time and place can answer so many of our questions.


SOURCES

  1. In re Widdowson’s Will, 189 Pa. 338 (1899).
  2. “The Widdowson Case,” The Indiana (Pa.) Messenger, 19 Jan 1898, p. 3, col. 4; digital images, Newspapers.com (http://www.newspapers.com : accessed 12 Aug 2013).
  3. J. T. Stewart, “Twolick Church,” Indiana County, Pennsylvania : Her People, Past and Present (Chicago: J.H. Beers & Co., 1913), 1: 292; digital images, Google Books (http://books.google.com : accessed 12 Aug 2013).
  4. “An Act Relating to Corporations and to Estates held for Corporate, Religious and Charitable uses,” in Laws of the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Passed at the Session of 1855 (Harrisburg : State Printer, 1855), 332; digital images, Internet Archive (http://www.archive.org : accessed 12 Aug 2013).
  5. See “Letter from Harrisburg,” The Public Ledger, Philadelphia, Pa., 24 Mar 1855, p. 1, col. 6; digital images, Newspapers.com (http://www.newspapers.com : accessed 12 Aug 2013).
  6. See e.g. Stevens’s Estate, 200 Pa. 318 (1901).
  7. §6, “an Act Relating to the form, execution, revocation, and interpretation of wills; to nuncupative wills; to the appointment of testamentary guardians; to spendthrift trusts; to forfeiture of devise or legacy in case of murder of testator; to elections to take under or against wills; and to the recording and registering of such elections and of decrees relative thereto, and to the fees therefor,” in Laws of the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Passed at the Session of 1917 (Harrisburg : State Printer, 11917), 406; digital images, Google Books (http://books.google.com : accessed 12 Aug 2013).
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