Gaines Et Ux. v. Chew (1844)
In Gaines Et Ux. v. Chew (1844) 43 U.S. 619, the bill in equity filed in the United States Court for Louisiana alleged that the decedent executed two wills; that the later will was fraudulently suppressed or destroyed; that the earlier one was fraudulently tendered for probate and admitted to probate; and that the defendants, some of whom were executors under the earlier will and others were purchasers of property belonging to the estate, knew of the fraud.
The prayer was revocation of the first will, effectiveness given to the second will, discovery, and an accounting.
The Supreme Court held that the later will would have to be established and admitted to probate before any rights could be asserted under it; that in Louisiana the court of probate had exclusive jurisdiction in the proof of wills; that in cases of fraud, equity has concurrent jurisdiction with a court of law, but in regard to a will charged to have been obtained through fraud, that rule does not obtain; and that the United States Court did not have jurisdiction in equity to carry the spoliated will into effect.
However, the bill was upheld as a bill of discovery to assist complainants in their proofs before the probate court; and the court intimated that in the event the probate court should decline to exercise jurisdiction, and there should not be any remedy in the higher courts of the state, the United States Court in the exercise of its equity jurisdiction might have inherent power to afford a remedy where the right was clear, by giving effect to the later will.
But the court did not go further in that case.
In that case the testator had executed a will in 1811. The defendants were executors under that will and, with other defendants, had taken thereunder. The will was probated after the death of the testator in 1813. Just previous to his death, he executed a second will, revoking in law the first, in which he declared the plaintiff his daughter and left her the bulk of his estate. The plaintiff did not learn of her true parentage until 1832. In 1836 she instituted this action, alleging fraud by the defendants in the suppression of the second will and in effecting the probate of the first one.
The Supreme Court held that:
"One man possesses himself wrongfully and fraudulently of the property of another; in equity, he holds such property in trust, for the rightful owner."
The Supreme Court of the United States said:
"Every case must be governed by its own circumstances, and as these are as diversified as the names of the parties, the court must exercise a sound discretion on the subject."