On appeal from the former Court of Chancery.
For affirmance -- Justices Case, Heher, Wachenfeld, Burling and Ackerson. For reversal -- None. The opinion of the court was delivered by Wachenfeld, J.
[5 NJ Page 170] The administrator with the will annexed of the estate of Louis Seylaz, and others, instituted an action to set aside a conveyance made by Seylaz a short time before his death in 1945 and to recover the sum of $2,903.75, part of the proceeds of the sale by him of other real property. The grantee in the deed complained of was Ida Sutphen Bennett,
Seylaz's housekeeper, who was the defendant named in the original bill of complaint. She died while the action was pending and her sons, William and Russell Jaques, individually, and William as the executor of her estate, were substituted as defendants by leave of the court.
Seylaz was a widower, his wife having died in 1922. Mrs. Bennett, separated from her husband, was a friend of long standing. The closeness and confidential nature of the relationship is indicated in part by the fact he made a will, his last, in 1932 in which he gave her a life estate in his entire estate and further by a visit they made together to the Chicago World's Fair in 1933.
In 1935, Seylaz asked Mrs. Bennett to live in his house in Irvington and to act as his housekeeper. She assented and lived there until he died at the age of eighty-six.
Seylaz sold real estate owned by him on St. Paul Avenue in Newark in May, 1944. Part of the purchase price was paid by a check for $2,903.75 which he endorsed over to Mrs. Bennett, who in turn deposited it in her account in the Irvington National Bank and made certain withdrawals against it which will be particularized hereafter.
Later that same year, Seylaz conveyed to Mrs. Bennett in fee simple the house in which they lived and the surrounding land. The deed was prepared by her attorney who also drew a will for Mrs. Bennett devising the premises to Seylaz in the event she predeceased him. The will was executed immediately upon the execution of the deed.
Seylaz died May 1, 1945, and his administrator with the will annexed, together with the beneficiaries under the will, brought this action to set aside the conveyance and to recover the sum of $2,903.75 given to Mrs. Bennett, alleging that at the time of both transactions Seylaz was aged, senile, unable to comprehend the nature and effect of his actions, did not have the advice of disinterested and competent counsel and was under the complete domination and control of Mrs. Bennett, who exercised undue influence and duress upon him in order to perpetrate a fraud.
Some nineteen witnesses testified as to the mental and physical condition of Seylaz during the last year of his life and to the relationship between him and Mrs. Bennett. The then Vice-Chancellor who heard the case found as a fact that Seylaz was of sound mind all during this period and fully understood and intended the results of the actions complained of. He found, moreover, Seylaz could and did manage and control his business affairs independently and the relationship was that of two old people each dependent in considerable degree upon the other for care and companionship but with neither one dominating or controlling the other. On this finding, a decree was entered dismissing the complaint in so far as it sought to have the conveyance set aside.
As to the $2,903.75 which Mrs. Bennett received from Seylaz, the court below found $600 of it was owed by him to her, a debt evidenced by a promissory note of which he was the maker and she the payee. Other credits totalling $1,220 were allowed her estate for payments she had made out of the fund, prior to Seylaz's death, for taxes, a lawyer's fee and roof repairs and, subsequently, for his funeral expenses. The decree charged her estate with the balance, $1,083.75.
The complainants below appeal and the respondents cross-appeal from that part of the decree which charged Mrs. Bennett's ...