March Term, 1865
R.B. Roosevelt, for the appellant.
William Bliss, for the respondent.
The evidence was quite conclusive that the domicile of Cohen at the time of his death, was at New Haven. The purchase of an expensive dwelling house for his residence, the measures taken to furnish it with servants, and to repair and supply it with furniture and fuel, and the intention to make it his permanent abode for the remainder of his life were shown by positive evidence which was wholly uncontradicted. Upon this evidence there was no question for the jury, and if a verdict had been returned involving a denial of its effect, it would have been at once set aside. If it be conceded that, prior to these acts, and this manifestation of intention, it was equivocal whether his residence was at New York or New Haven, it was no longer so, after he had provided himself with a residence in the latter city, with the absolute determination permanently to occupy it. It follows that the Probate Court of the district which embraced the city of New Haven had jurisdiction. The record of that court admitting the will to probate, and appointing an administrator upon the default of the executors named in it to appear and qualify, was, by force of the Constitution and laws of the United States, entitled to full faith and credit in the courts of this State.
A foreign executor or administrator (and one appointed under the laws of a sister State of the Union is foreign in the sense of the rule), cannot sue in his representative character in the courts of this State. The question whether a party deriving title to a chose in action by transfer from such an executor or administrator, can prosecute the debtor residing here, in our courts, has been variously decided in the cases to which we have been referred. In the Supreme Court in the first district, the Merchants' Bank of New York was sued for refusing to transfer to the plaintiff one hundred shares of its stock, to which the latter made title by transfers from the executors of one Robert Middlebrook, in whose name the stock stood on the books of the bank. He died at his residence in Connecticut, and his will had been proved, and letters testamentary had been issued by the Probate Court of the proper district in that State. The plaintiff was a legatee of a certain amount of the testator's stock, and the shares in controversy had been assigned to him in satisfaction of the legacy. The court held that the executors became vested with the title to the stock, and that the plaintiff, though he derived his title under them, could enforce his right against the bank in our courts, and judgment was accordingly given in his favor. ( Middlebrook v. The Merchants' Bank, 27 How. Pr. 474; S.C., at Special Term, 24 id., 267.)
A different rule has been established in the courts of New Hampshire and of Maine. ( Thompson v. Wilson, 2 N.H., 291; Stearns v. Burnham, 5 Greenl., 261.) In each of these cases the defendant was sued as the maker of a promissory note, by parties claiming as indorsees under indorsements by the executors of the payees who were respectively residents of Massachusetts, and whose wills were proved and letters thereon issued in that State. The defendants prevailed in each case, on the objection that the respective plaintiffs were subject to the same disability to sue which would have attached to the executors if they had attempted to prosecute in another State than that under whose laws their letters testamentary were granted. In the first case the judgment was placed upon the English ecclesiastical law, by which probates of wills and grants of administration are void when not made by the ordinary of the proper diocese, a doctrine which I do not think applicable to questions arising between different States, as it makes no allowance for the principles of international comity. In the case in Maine, it was thought that allowing a recovery would be an indirect mode of giving operation in Maine to the laws of Massachusetts, and also that the effects of the deceased might thereby be withdrawn from the State, to the prejudice of creditors residing there.
The precise case now before us came before the Supreme Court of the United States in Harper v. Butler (2 Peters, 239). The suit was brought in Mississippi, on a chose in action, originally existing in favor of a citizen of Kentucky, who died there, and whose executor having letters testamentary issued in that State, assigned it to the plaintiff. In Mississippi, choses in action are assignable so as to permit the assignee to sue in his own name, as is now the case in this State. The question arose on demurrer to the complaint, and the District Court sustained the demurrer. The judgment was reversed upon a short opinion by Chief Justice MARSHALL, which merely states the point, and contains no general reasoning. No counsel appeared on behalf of the defendant.
The case in Maine has been made the subject of comment in Story's Treatise on the Conflict of Laws (§§ 258, 259), and is decidedly disapproved by the learned writer. He says, that upon the reasoning of the case a promissory note would cease to be negotiable after the death of the payee, which, he observes, would certainly not be an admissible proposition.
It seems clear to me that there are no precedents touching the question which are binding upon this court, or which can relieve it from the duty of examining the question upon principle. There are certain legal doctrines, now very well established, which have a strong bearing upon the point. It is very clear, in the first place, that neither an executor or administrator, appointed in a foreign political jurisdiction, can maintain a suit in his own name in our courts. Foreign laws have no inherent operation in this State; but it is not on this account solely or principally that we deny foreign representatives of this class a standing in our courts. The comity of nations, which is a part of the common law, allows a certain effect to titles derived under and powers created by the laws of other countries. Foreign corporations may become parties to contracts in this State, and may sue or be sued in our courts on contracts made here or within the jurisdiction which created them. The only limitation of that right is the inhibition to do anything in its exercise which shall be hostile to our own laws or policy. ( Bank of Augusta v. Earle, 13 Pet., 519; Bard v. Poole, 2 Kern., 495, 505, and cases cited.) And yet nothing can be more clearly the emanation of sovereign political power than the creation of a corporation. Again, the receivers of insolvent foreign corporations, and assignees of bankrupt and insolvent debtors, under the laws of other States and countries, are allowed to sue in our courts. It is true their titles are not permitted to overreach the claims of domestic creditors of the same debtor, pursuing their remedies under our laws; but in the absence of such contestants they fully represent the rights of the foreign debtors. (Story's Conf. Laws, § 112; Hoyt v. Thomasen, 1 Seld., 320; S.C., 19 N.Y., 207; Willets v. Waite, 25 N.Y., 584.) It is not therefore because the executor or administrator has no right to the assets of the deceased, existing in another country, that he is refused a standing in the courts of such country, for his title to such assets, though conferred by the law of the domicile of the deceased, is recognized everywhere. Reasons of form, and a solicitude to protect the rights of creditors and others, resident in the jurisdiction in which the assets are found, have led to the disability of foreign executors and administrators, which disability, however inconsistent with principle, is very firmly established. We have lately decided that if the debtors of the deceased will voluntarily pay what they owe to the foreign executor, such payment will discharge the debts, and the moneys so collected will be subject to the administration of such foreign executor. ( Parsons v. Lyman, 20 N.Y., 103.)
But the principle of law which I think governs this case is, that the succession to the personal estate of a deceased person is governed by the law of the country of his domicile at the time of his death. This is so whether the succession is claimed under the law providing for intestacy or for transmission by last will and testament. (See Parsons v. Lyman, supra, and authorities cited at p. 112.) It is not so held because the foreign legislature or the local institutions have any extra territorial force, but from the comity of nations. Accordingly, it is a necessary supplement to the doctrine that, if the law-making power of the State where the property happens to be situated, or the debtor of the deceased reside, to subserve its own policy, has engrafted qualifications or restrictions upon the rights of those who would succeed to the estate by the law of the domicile, they must take their rights subject to such restrictions. One of the most natural, as well as the most usual of these qualifications is that which is intended to secure the creditors of the deceased residing in the county where the assets exist. It is in part to subserve this policy that the personal representatives are not permitted to prosecute the debtor or parties who withhold his effects in our courts. But the protection to the creditor is further secured by the remedy which is provided by allowing them to take out administration in the jurisdiction where the assets are. If the deceased have any relatives in this State who would be preferably entitled, they can be summoned, and if they elect to take out letters themselves, they will be compellable to give bond, and the creditors will be then made secure in their rights, or if the relatives refuse to assume that responsibility, then the creditors may themselves be appointed, and thus qualified to take possession of the assets here upon the same terms. (2 R.S., 73, §§ 23, 24.) If the debtors of the estate elect to pay to the former representative, or to deliver to him the movable assets, before the granting of administration in this State, the domestic creditors are put to the inconvenience of asserting their rights in the courts of the country of their debtor's domicile against his representatives appointed under the laws of that country, just as they would have been compelled to do if all his effects had been situated there. Another general principle of law necessary to be adverted to is, that the executor of a testator, as soon at least as he has clothed himself with the commission of the Probate Court, is vested with the title to all the movable property and rights of action which the deceased possessed at the instant of his death. The title of the executor, it is true, is fiduciary and not beneficial. That title is, however, perfect against every person except the creditors and legatees of the deceased. The devolution of ownership is direct to the representative, and the beneficiaries take no title in the specific property which the law can recognize. An administrator with the will annexed, has the same rights of property as the executor named in the will would have had if he had qualified. (2 R.S., p. 72, § 22.)
The law of maintenance while it existed, prohibited the transfer of the legal property in a chose in action, so as to give the assignee a right of action in his own name. But this is now abrogated, and such a demand as that which is asserted against the defendant in this suit may be sold and conveyed so as to vest in the purchaser all the legal, as well as the equitable rights of the original creditor. (Code, § 111.) Though such demands are not negotiable in precisely the same sense as commercial paper, since the assignee is subject to every substantial defense which might have been made against the assignor, yet where, as in this case, no such defense exists, the transfer is absolute and complete. The title which is vested in the executor carries with it the jus disponendi which generally inheres in the ownership of property. "It is a general rule of law and equity," says Judge WILLIAMS, in his treatise on executors, "that an executor or administrator has an absolute power of disposal over the whole personal effects of his testator or intestate, and that they cannot be followed by creditors, much less by legatees, either general or specific, into the hands of the alienee." (Treatise, p. 796; see also Whale v. Booth, 7 Term R., 625, in note to Farr v. Newman; Sutherland v. Breesh, 7 Johns. Ch., 17; Rawlinson v. Stone, 3 Wils., 1; Harper v. Butler, supra.)
It follows that the plaintiff presented himself to the Superior Court as the owner by purchase and assignment of the debt against the defendant, from a person holding the title and hence having authority to sell. He claimed to recover, not as the representative of any other party, but as the substituted creditor of the defendants' bank. He had, it is true, to make title through the will of Cohen, and the proceedings of the Probate Court of Connecticut. But the validity of that title depended upon the law of Connecticut, that being the place of the domicile of the former owner of the demand. The validity of every transfer, alienation or disposition of personal property depends upon the law of the owner's domicile. (Story on Conf. of Laws, § 383.) In the absence of proof to the contrary, we assume the law of Connecticut respecting the alienation of choses in action to be the same as our own. If Cohen had, at his death, been a resident of this State, and his administrator with the will annexed had sold and assigned to the plaintiff his demand against the bank, there is no manner of doubt but that the assignee, upon the refusal of the bank to pay the amount, could have maintained this action.
Hence there is not, I think, any reason why the plaintiff should be precluded from maintaining his action, on account of his making title through a foreign administration. The rule is not that our courts do not recognize titles thus acquired. It is simply that a foreign executor or administrator can have no standing in our courts. The plaintiff does not occupy that position. He sues in his own right and for his own interest, and represents no one. In my opinion, the disability to sue does not attach to the subject of the action, but is confined to the person of the plaintiff. If he is an unexceptionable suitor, and there is no rule of form or of policy which repels him from our courts, he is to be received, and he may make out his title to the subject claimed, in any manner allowed by law; and it has been shown that title acquired through a foreign administration is universally respected by the comity of nations.
It is pretty obvious from the evidence of the circumstances of the transfer by Peck to the plaintiff, that its object was to avoid the objection which might be taken if Peck had sued in his own name as administrator, without taking out letters here. There was no other conceivable motive for the plaintiff to purchase this moneyed demand payable immediately, for its precise amount paid down. If his check on the bank, drawn shortly after the transfer, had been answered, he would have received the precise amount he had parted with, and the transaction at the best would have been paying with one hand to receiving the same amount back with the other. If he failed to realize the amount, he was to be indemnified by Peck. This circumstance, and the manner in which the assumed consideration was disposed of, would doubtless have led the jury to find, that the form adopted was resorted to in order to enable the administrator to avail himself of the balance in the defendant's bank, without taking out administration here. Still, as between the plaintiff and Peck, the interest in the demand passed. Peck would have been estopped by his conveyance under seal, containing an acknowledgment of the payment of the consideration, from setting up that nothing passed by the conveyance. I am of opinion that the defendant cannot make a question as to the consideration. If all the parties had been residents of this State, a transfer of the demand, good as between the parties to that transfer, would have obliged the defendant to respond to the action of the transferee. Then if we hold, as I think we should, that the objection to the suit of the administrator was in the nature of a personal disability to sue, and not an infirmity inhering in the subject of the suit, the fact that the transfer was made for the purpose of getting rid of the objection, should not prejudice the plaintiff. The cases which have been referred to upon this point have considerable analogy. The Constitution and laws of the United States confer upon the courts of the Union, jurisdiction in suits between citizens of different States, with an exception contained in an act of Congress, of one suing as the assignee of a chose in action, of a party whose residence was such as not to permit him to sue. In an action by an assignee concerning the title to land, which was not within the exception, it was held not to be an objection which the defendant could take, that the assignment was made for the purpose of removing the difficulty as to jurisdiction. ( Briggs v. French, 2 Sumn., 251.) In a late case in this court against a foreign corporation, which could not be prosecuted here except by a resident of this State, unless the cause of action arose here or the subject of the action was situated here, it was held that the objection — that the assignment of the demand by one not qualified by his residence to sue, to the plaintiff who was thus qualified, was made for the purpose of avoiding the difficulty — could not be sustained. ( McBride v. The Farmers' Bank, 26 N.Y., 450.)
I have not thus far referred to the circumstance, that Cohen was shown not to have owed any debts in this State. That fact was proved as strongly as in the nature of the case such a position could be established. The administrator, whose business it was to ascertain the existence of debts, and the confidential servant of Cohen who was very familiar with his transactions, affirmed that there were none; and the defendant gave no evidence on the subject. The motive of policy for forbidding the withdrawal of assets to the prejudice of domestic creditors, did not therefore exist in this case. Still, if the rule is that neither the foreign administrator or his assignee can maintain an action in our courts to collect a debt against a debtor residing here, on account of its tendency to prejudice domestic creditors, the exceptional features of the present case would not change the principle. It would often be more difficult than in this case to disprove the existence of such debts. But I am of opinion that the objection should be regarded as formal, and that it does not exist where the plaintiff is not a foreign executor or administrator but sues in his own right, though his title may be derived from such a representative.
I am in favor of affirming the judgment of the Supreme Court.
The evidence that the domicile of the testator, Aaron Cohen, was at New Haven, Connecticut, was sufficient, I think, to authorize the probate of his will in the court of that State. The probate when so made is at common law conclusive, and cannot be collaterally questioned, while it remains unreversed or unrepealed. ( Allen v. Dundas, 3 T.R., 125; Colman v. Sarrell, 1 Ves., 54.) Upon the issue in the pleadings in this case, as to the place of domicile of the testator, there does not seem to me to be sufficient evidence to have authorized a jury to find it was in New York; and it was no error in the judge at the trial, that he refused to submit that as a question of fact to the jury; besides, I think it was an immaterial issue. Jurisdiction of the probate of the will having been obtained in the Connecticut court, as well by the fact of domicile there, as by the possession of assets; and the due authentication of the probate and letters being shown, the will was evidence of the conference of title of the personal property of the testator to the executor, in every country where it was situated. (Story's Conflict of Laws, § 465, and authorities cited.) "The executor has the property of the goods of the testator vested in him before probate. (Comyn's Dig., Administrator, B, 9.) He has the property of the goods vested in him before actual possession. (Id., B, 10.) He may alienate them before probate. (Id., B, 9.) This power is now restricted by our statute (2 Rev. Stat., 71, § 16, marginal paging), until after letters testamentary are granted. We are to presume in the absence of proof, that the Connecticut statute is the same as our own. The executor may receive payment, and give sufficient discharges for moneys due. ( Parsons v. Lyman, 20 N.Y., 103.) If money be due or payable to the testator, the executor shall have action for it; he represents the person of his testator. (Com. Dig., B, 11.) And so upon any contract made with his testator. (Id.) These rights and powers, however, to bring the action or to enforce his rights, under the authority of his letters testamentary, is limited to the sovereignty, by virtue of whose laws he receives his appointment. Parsons v. Lyman, ( 20 N.Y., 112); but this case also holds, that an executor having letters in Connecticut in the absence of letters here, can receive payment of debts, take the delivery of property, and give a valid discharge within this State. The case of Robison v. Crandall (9 Wend., 426), holds, that a suit on a note payable to bearer, could be sued upon here in the individual name of the administrator to whom letters of administration had been granted in Pennsylvania, on the ground that he was the real owner of the note; though he could not sue here in his representative character. In the case of Middlebrook v. The Merchants' Bank (24 How. Pr., 267), it was held at Special Term, "that an executor who has obtained probate and letters testamentary in Connecticut, where he resides, can dispose of the testator's property in this State without taking out ancillary letters here. In Smith v. Miles (1 T.R., 480), ASHURST J., held, that the right to property in the executor was immediate upon the death of the testator, and the right draws after it constructive possession; that probate was the mere evidence of right; and in Hutchins v. State Bank (12 Metcalf, 421), it was held, that an executrix having probate and letters granted in New Hampshire could sell and transfer stock in a bank in Massa chusetts, without having the will allowed and recorded in the latter State. The action in this case is not brought by the executor, and the authority of the executor is only in question so far as to determine what I think is the real point in this case, to wit, can the executor within the State of Connecticut, alien a demand, due to his testator from a person living in this State, so that the alienee, or assignee, can bring an action in his own name? 1. I know of no statute restraint upon the right of alienation in this State, none was shown to exist in Connecticut, and restraints have never been favored at common law. "It is a rule of common law that the power of alienation is an inseparable incident to the right of property, for the law knows of no such anomaly as the right of property without the absolute and universal power of disposal. (Bell on Husband and Wife, 504.) In Fettiplace v. George (1 Ves., 49), Lord THURLOW said, "the moment property can be enjoyed, it must be enjoyed with all its incidents." And Lord COKE cites a Latin maxim, the translation of which is, "that it is unjust that freemen should not have the free disposal of their own property." (Co. Litt., 223, a.) This right of alienation or right to sell is not more free and unrestricted than the right to purchase. This assignment constituted a legal transfer of the claim in question to the plaintiff, the fact being found by the jury. 2. What then are the plaintiff's rights, as the legal owner of this claim? Since choses in action are made assignable by statute, the action need not be brought in the name of the executor, but must be brought in the name of the party in interest. (Code, §§ 111, 112, 113.) The action is then brought in the right name. The assignee, of course, has purchased the claim subject to all equities which the defendants had against the assignor, but no equities are claimed against it by the defendants. The objection, that the assignee had no right to sue until he showed himself qualified, is not an equity set up against the demand. The objection to the qualification of the executor might be true; he could not sue a demand in Connecticut until he obtained his letters testamentary there; he probably cannot sue in this State without ancillary letters obtained here; but all this has nothing to do with the validity or the equities of the demand itself. The defendants set up no equities against the demand itself, nor against the testator by counterclaim, recoupment or offset. They stand in no relation of trustees for the creditors of the testator residing in this State, if any there were. They are bound to pay their liability, whenever a person lawfully authorized to discharge it presents it for payment. The personal disability of the executor to sue is no defense to this action when brought by one against whom no such disability exists. This was settled by the late case of McBride v. Farmers' Bank ( 26 N.Y., 450.) The principle established in that case is, I think, conclusive of this. This claim in this case is conceded to be just; there is no legal or equitable defense to it on the merits; it was legally assigned to the plaintiff; he holds it absolutely; he is under no legal disability to sue. The principle insisted on by the defendants, "that the assignee of a foreign executor stands in no better position than the executor himself, who can confer no rights that he does not himself possess," is true so far as the merits of the question, or the absolute rights of others are concerned, and so far as the act of the executor or the rights of his assignee shall come in conflict with the local policy or laws of this State, or with the rights of its citizens. No such conflict appears to me to exist in this case.
I am of opinion that the judgment should be affirmed.