Nance v. Woodward

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Nance v. Woodward, Wythe 180 (1793),[1] discussed which property in a will the phrase "during her natural life" applied to.


Timothy Vaughan I died on December 1, 1759, leaving behind his wife Sarah I; his sons David, Timothy II, and Henry; and his daughters Mary, Sarah II, and Cate. In his will, Timothy I said he would give "my wife Sarah Vaughan (Sarah I) all my personal estate, and (Timothy I's slaves) Peter, Nat, Thomas Beef, Nancy, Patt, and the use of the plantation whereon i now live, during her natural life."

Apparently[2] some time before 1772, David, Sarah II, and Cate died intestate[3] and without any heirs besides their siblings. Also apparently before 1772, Timothy II had married Lucy, one of the defendants. Timothy II died, naming Lucy the executrix of his estate. Again, Wythe does not say, but presumably before 1772, Mary married William Nance.

Sarah I died in 1772. In her will, Sarah I left Timothy I's slaves and personal property to David.

The Nances, the plaintiffs, claimed that Timothy I's will only gave Sarah I a life estate[4] in his personal estate, slaves, and plantation. Therefore, after Sarah I's death, those items would have been split among Timothy I's remaining heirs, and Mary was entitled to collect her share of the property.

Lucy and her current husband, George Woodward, claimed that Timothy I meant the phrase "during her natural life" to only apply to the plantation. Therefore, Sarah I had the right to designate a person to inherit Timothy I's slaves and personal property, so David had properly inherited them. Since David was dead without any surviving children or spouse, the inheritance passed to Timothy II, and then to Timothy II's heir, Lucy.

The Court's Decision

The Chancery Court ordered the Woodwards to use money from Timothy II's estate to pay the Nances the value of Mary's share of Timothy I's personal estate, slaves, and plantation, a total of £151.

Wythe said that the most logical interpretation of the language in Timothy I's will giving the property to Sarah I to use "during her natural life" was that Timothy I intended to give Sarah I a life estate in all the property listed: the plantation, the slaves, and the personal property.

Wythe stated that the Woodwards' proposed interpretation would have rendered the words "during her natural life" pointless. Timothy I could have given Sarah I a life estate in only the plantation just by saying she would get "use of the plantation". Adding the words "during her natural life" to Timothy I's gift of his slaves and personal property, however, would make an important difference.


  1. George Wythe, Decisions of Cases in Virginia by the High Court of Chancery with Remarks upon Decrees by the Court of Appeals, Reversing Some of Those Decisions, 2nd ed., ed. B.B. Minor (Richmond: J.W. Randolph, 1852), 180.
  2. Wythe does not give an exact timeline.
  3. Without leaving a will.
  4. A sort of trust that would have let Sarah I use the property during her lifetime, but would not let her designate who the property went to after she died.