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Epstein v. Kuvin

Decided: April 25, 1952.


Freund, J.s.c.


The plaintiff executrix filed the complaint for construction of the will of her deceased mother, Fannie Kuvin. The testatrix devised and bequeathed property to her sons, Samuel Kuvin and Herbert Kuvin, the defendants herein, and by the eleventh paragraph of her will directed that if she should die before her grandson, Sanford Kuvin, "has completed his college education, then and in that event" they should pay a total annual sum of $1,000 "toward the expenses of a college education" until he "completes his college education." In June, 1951, Sanford completed a premedical course at the University of Pennsylvania, receiving the degree of Bachelor of Arts. He has applied to and been accepted by a college for the study of medicine.

The question is: Did the obligation for the payments imposed by the testatrix terminate upon the completion of the academic pre-medical course which Sanford Kuvin pursued, as the defendants assert, or, as the plaintiffs contend, does it continue during the period that Sanford is at college engaged in the study of medicine? What did the testatrix mean by the phrase "completes his college education"? Did she mean to limit it to a liberal arts education or did she use the term in the broad sense to include professional training as well?

It is fundamental that the prime duty of a court in the construction of a will is to ascertain the intention of a testator and to effectuate it. The testator's meaning and intention should be "determined, not by fixing the attention on single words, but by considering the entire will and the surroundings of the testator when he executed the will, and by ascribing to him, so far as his language permits, the common impulses of our nature." Coyle v. Donaldson , 91 N.J. Eq. 138 (E. & A. 1919); Blauvelt v. Citizens Trust Co. , 3 N.J. 545 (1950).

"The spirit prevails over the letter of the testament. All principles and rules in aid of interpretation yield to the intention revealed by the context. And words are to be given their primary and natural significance unless the context renders it clear that they were employed in a different sense. * * * And blind adherence to precedent

as respects the meaning of a particular phrase is fraught with peril to the testamentary design, for, as said, intention is to be gathered from the instrument as a whole, and it rarely happens that the wills are substantially alike." National State Bank of Newark v. Stewart , 135 N.J. Eq. 603 (E. & A. 1944).

In construing the will the court may depart from its strict wording or read the words or phrase in a sense different from that ordinarily attributed to it when such course is necessary in order to give effect to the intention of the testator. Herbert v. Central Hanover Bank & Trust Co. , 131 N.J. Eq. 330 (Ch. 1942), affirmed 132 N.J. Eq. 445 (E. & A. 1942); Barrett v. Barrett , 134 N.J. Eq. 138 (Ch. 1943); Fidelity-Philadelphia Trust Co. v. Jameson , 137 N.J. Eq. 385 (Ch. 1946).

"The word 'college' is not a word of art which, by common understanding, has acquired a definite unchanging significance in the field of education. Its meaning varies with its context. Though at times it is used to denote any institution of higher learning, including institutions for professional or post-graduate study, it is frequently used * * * to denote an 'undergraduate' school for instruction in liberal arts having a course of study commonly requiring four years for completion and leading to a bachelor's degree." In re Kelly's Estate , 285 N.Y. 139, 33 N.E. 2 d 62 (Ct. App. 1941).

College includes both the undergraduate, and the graduate and professional departments of a college or university. It applies as well to medical colleges. People v. Albany Medical College , 26 Hun. 348 (Sup. Ct. 1882), affirmed 89 N.Y. 635 (Ct. App. 1882); Shepard v. Union & New Haven Trust Co. , 106 Conn. 627, 138 A. 809 (Sup. Ct. Err. 1927); 14 C.J.S., Colleges and Universities, sec. 1, page 1327; Webster's International Dictionary (2 d ed.)

There is a very wide latitude in the term "a college education" and it should be construed to include training for the lifework of the beneficiaries if that intention of the testator can be gleaned from the will. In re Weller's Estate , 108 Pa. Super. 137, 164 A. 140 (Pa. Super. 1933).

The New Jersey statute regulating licenses for the practice of medicine, R.S. 45:9-8, provides, ...

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