RICARD V. WILLIAMS, 20 U. S. 59 (1822)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Ricard v. Williams, 20 U.S. 59 (1822)

Ricard v. Williams

20 U.S. 59


Possession of land by a party, claiming it as his own in fee, is prima facie evidence of his ownership and seizin of the inheritance.

But possession alone, unexplained by collateral circumstances, evidences no more than the mere fact of present occupation by right the law will not presume a wrong, and a mere possession is just as consistent with a present interest under a lease for years or for life as in fee. It must depend on the collateral circumstances what is the quality and extent of the interest claimed by the party, and to that extent only will the presumption of law go in his favor. The declarations of the party while in possession, equally with his acts, must be good evidence for this purpose. If he claims only an estate for life, and that is consistent with his possession, the law will not, upon the mere fact of his possession, adjudge him to be in under a higher right or a larger estate.

If a party be in under title, and by mistake of law supposes himself possessed of a less estate in the land than really belongs to him, the law will adjudge him in possession of and remit him to his full right and title. For a mistake of law shall not in such case prejudice the right of the party, and his possession therefore must be held coextensive with his right.

It is a general rule that a disseizor cannot qualify his own wrong, but must be considered as a disseizor in fee.

But this rule is introduced only for the benefit of the disseizee, for the sake of electing his remedy.

And it must also appear that the party found in possession entered without right, for if his entry were congeable or his possession lawful, his entry and possession will be considered as limited by his right.

Presumptions of a grant arising from the lapse of time are applied to corporeal as well as incorporeal hereditaments.

They may be encountered and rebutted by contrary presumptions, and can never arise where all the circumstances are perfectly consistent with the nonexistence of a grant.

A fortiori they cannot arise where the claim is of such a nature as is at variance with the supposition of a grant.

In general, the presumption of a grant is limited to periods analogous to those of the statute of limitations in cases where the statute does not apply.

Where the statute applies, the presumption is not generally resorted to, but if the circumstances of the case are very cogent and require it, a grant maybe presumed within a period short of the statute.

Under the laws of Massachusetts and Connecticut, the power of an administrator to sell the real estate of his intestate under an order of the court of probates must be exercised within a reasonable time after the death of the intestate.

The case of such a power to sell is not within the purview of the statute of limitations of Connecticut, which limits all rights of entry and action to fifteen years after the title accrues, but the reasonable time within which the power must be exercised is to be fixed by analogy to that statute.

One heir, notwithstanding his entry as heir, may afterwards, by disseizin of his co-heirs, acquire an exclusive possession upon which the statute will run both against his co-heirs and against creditors.

An heir may claim an estate by title distinct or paramount to that of his ancestor, and if his possession is exclusive under such claim against all other persons until the statute period has run, he is entitled to the protection of the bar.

Page 20 U. S. 60

This was a suit instituted by the defendants in error against the plaintiff in error in the court below. The original action is commonly known in Connecticut by the name of an action of disseizin, and is a real action, final upon the rights of the parties and in the nature of a real action at the common law. The cause was tried upon the general issue, nul tort, nul disseizin, and a verdict being found for the demandants, a bill of exceptions was taken to the opinion of the court upon matters of law at the trial.

The history of the case as it stands upon the record is in substance as follows. The demandants claimed the estate in controversy by purchase from the administrator of William Dudley at a sale made by him for the payment of the debts of his intestate pursuant to the laws of Connecticut, which authorize

Page 20 U. S. 61

a sale of the real estate of any person deceased for the payment of his debts when the personal assets are insufficient for that purpose. In order to establish the title of William Dudley in the premises, the demandants proved that Thomas Dudley, the father of William, was in his lifetime possessed of the premises as parcel of what were called the Dudley lands, and died possessed of the same in 1769, leaving seven children, of whom William was eldest, being of about the age of fourteen years, and Joseph Gerriel, the youngest, being about four years of age. Upon the death of his father, Joseph Mayhew, the guardian of William, entered into possession of the Dudley lands and of the demanded premises as parcel, taking the rents and profits in his behalf during his minority, and upon his arrival of age, William entered and occupied the same, taking the rents and profits to his own use until his death, which happened in the year 1786, all his brothers and sisters being then living. During the life of William, no other person claimed any right to enter or occupy the premises except that his mother used to receive one-third of the rents and profits, until she died in the year 1783. During his life and while in possession of the premises, William always declared that he held the same only for life, and therefore would not allow any improvements on them at his expense; no leases were made by him except for short periods, and no attempt was made by him to sell or convey the premises, and he declared that he had no right to sell them and that upon his death they would descend to his son Joseph Dudley, under whom the tenant derived

Page 20 U. S. 62

his title in the manner hereafter stated. No administration was ever taken in Connecticut upon the estate of William Dudley until 1814, and his estate was then declared insolvent, and in 1817 the lands in controversy were sold by the administrator by order of the court of probates for the payment of the debts found due under the commission of insolvency.

To rebut the title of the demandants and to establish his own, the tenant proved that William Dudley died intestate leaving seven children, the eldest of whom was Joseph Dudley. Upon the death of his father, the guardian of Joseph (the latter being within age), entered into possession of the Dudley lands and the demanded premises as parcel and used and occupied the same, receiving the rents and profits in behalf of Joseph until his arrival of age, when Joseph himself entered into possession, claiming them as his own and taking the rents and profits to his own use, and holding all other persons out of possession, until the year 1811 and 1812, when he sold the demanded premises, and the tenant, either by direct or mesne conveyances under Joseph, came into possession, and has ever since held the premises in his own right. In the year 1811, Samuel Dudley, the brother of Joseph, claimed title to some of the Dudley lands possessed by Joseph and brought an action of ejectment for the recovery of them, but the suit was compromised by Joseph's paying him about $2,000, and about the same time Joseph settled with another of his brothers, but did not pay him anything. But Joseph never admitted that his brothers

Page 20 U. S. 63

or sister had any interest in the lands, and said he could hold them, and did hold them in the same manner as he held the lands in Massachusetts.

The will of Governor Dudley, which was admitted to probate in Massachusetts in 1720, was also in evidence, but neither party established any privity or derivation of title under it.

Upon these facts, the tenant prayed the court to instruct the jury that the demandants had not made out a title in themselves nor in William Dudley. Not in themselves, because the sale by the administrator to the demandant was void by force of the statute regarding the sale of disputed titles, the tenant being in possession of the property at the time of the sale, claiming it as his own, and that William Dudley had acquired no title to the property in question by possession, as he claimed to hold the same only during his life and could therefore acquire no title except for life by any length of possession, and that if he could acquire title by possession, if this estate descended from Thomas Dudley, said William could not in seventeen years acquire a title against his brothers and sisters, or at least against those of them who had not been of full age for five years before the death of said William, and if the demandants could recover at all, it could only be for that proportion of the estate which descended from William as one of the heirs of Thomas Dudley.

The tenant further prayed the court to instruct the jury that if they found that Joseph Dudley had, for more than fifteen years before he sold the land in controversy, been in possession of the same, exclusively

Page 20 U. S. 64

claiming them as his own, and holding out all others, he had gained a complete title to the property.

The tenant further claimed that the court ought to have instructed the jury that under the circumstances attending the possession of said lands by William Dudley, the father, and by Joseph Dudley, and the length of time which had elapsed since the death of said William, without any claim on the part of the creditors of said William, the jury might presume a grant from some owner of the land to William for life, with remainder to his eldest son. But the court did charge and instruct the jury that the sale by the administrator under an order of court was not within the statute regarding disputed titles, and was not therefore void. That William Dudley, by mistaken constructions of the will of governor Dudley, might have claimed an estate for life in the premises, and that such mistake would not operate to defeat his title by possession. That the length of time in which this estate had been occupied by William and Joseph Dudley would bar any claims by the other children of Thomas Dudley deceased, and that the jury were authorized to presume a grant by said children to their brother William Dudley deceased, and therefore if the demandants recovered, they must recover the whole of the premises.

The court also charged the jury that as against the creditors of William Dudley, neither Joseph Dudley nor the tenant had gained title to the lands in controversy by possession, and that the jury were not authorized to presume a grant to Joseph.

Page 20 U. S. 65

To which several opinions of the court, the tenant by his counsel excepted.

Page 20 U. S. 105

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