Latham v. Father Devine
299 N.Y. 22, 85 N.E.2d 168 (1949)

  • Lyon was a follower of the cult leader, Father Devine. She died, leaving almost all her money to cult members.
  • Her first cousin Latham, and other relatives, contested the will, citing fraud.
    • Latham testified that Lyon had expressed a desire to change her will and leave the money to the relatives. However, she was prevented from doing so by the cult members.
    • Latham further argued that the cult had Lyon killed in order to get the money.
    • Latham and the other plaintiffs were not in line to get anything if the will was thrown out and intestate succession applied. Hey would only get $$$ if the courts found that the will Lyon intended to make was valid!
      • Latham et. al. were distributees, not heirs.
  • The Trial Court dismissed Latham’s claim. Latham appealed.
    • By the time Latham et. al. made their claim, the will had already been probated, so the Trial Court felt that it was too late to do anything about it.
  • The Appellate Court affirmed, Latham appealed.
  • The New York Supreme Court reversed
    • The New York Supreme Court found that Devine held a constructive trust in favor of Latham.
      • The Restatement of the Law of Restitution, says if devisee under an already executed will prevents the testator by fraud (duress, or undue influence) from revoking the will and executing a new will in favor of another or from making a codicil, so that the testator dies w/ the original will in place, the devisee holds the property in constructive trust for the intended devisee.
    • The idea is that the first will was completely valid, so they courts can’t overturn that. They also can’t say that the intended will is invalid because it doesn’t meet the legal requirements to be a will. However, equity and justice demand that Latham gets the property, so the constructive trust defeats the fraud, by leaving the will valid, but essentially taking the property away from the person perpetrating the fraud.