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UNITED STATES EX REL. WILHELM v. CHAIN

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES


decided: February 1, 1937.

UNITED STATES EX REL. WILHELM, TRUSTEE, ET AL
v.
CHAIN, EXECUTRIX

CERTIORARI TO THE CIRCUIT COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FOURTH CIRCUIT.

Hughes, Van Devanter, McReynolds, Brandeis, Sutherland, Butler, Stone, Roberts, Cardozo

Author: Van Devanter

[ 300 U.S. Page 31]

 MR. JUSTICE VAN DEVANTER delivered the opinion of the Court.

This was an action on the bond of a designated depository for money of bankrupt estates. The case will be stated.

July 22, 1924, a national bank at Kingwood, West Virginia, was designated by the bankruptcy court of that district as a depository for funds of bankrupt estates, subject to the requirement that the bank give a bond in the

[ 300 U.S. Page 32]

     penal sum of $5,000 and that the bond have the court's approval. Later in the same month the bond was given by the bank and approved by the court. Thereupon the bank became an authorized depository, and it continued to be such, without giving any further bond, until June 22, 1931, when it failed.

The bond was under seal; named the United States as obligee; was signed by the bank and two individual sureties, as obligors; declared that the obligors were thereby binding themselves, their heirs, executors, administrators, and successors, jointly and severally; recited the designation of the bank as a depository; and was conditioned for the faithful discharge and performance by the bank of all duties pertaining to it as a depository.

Between August 12, 1930, and June 22, 1931, Charles P. Wilhelm, as trustee for the estate of W. H. Pentony, a bankrupt, deposited in the bank, as a designated depository, various sums of money belonging to that estate, and made authorized withdrawals, with the result that, of the deposits so made, there remained in the bank on June 22, 1931, a balance of $3,190.72 to the credit of the trustee. On that day the bank became insolvent, closed its doors, refused to pay to the trustee the balance so owing to the bankrupt estate, and thereby broke the condition of its bond.

In March, 1926, which was after the bond was given and approved and before Wilhelm, trustee, made any deposit in the bank, James W. Flynn, one of the sureties on the bond, died and Nellie Flynn Chain became executrix of his estate. Flynn did not at any time during his life seek to revoke or terminate his suretyship; nor did his executrix subsequently take any step to that end.

The action on the bond was in the name of the United States for the use of Wilhelm, trustee, and was brought

[ 300 U.S. Page 33]

     against the bank, the surviving surety and the executrix of the deceased surety.

The district court gave judgment against the defendants for the balance due Wilhelm, trustee. The executrix of the deceased surety appealed, and the court of appeals reversed the judgment as to the estate of that surety. 84 F.2d 138. Certiorari was granted by this Court.

Pertinent statutes and a related general bankruptcy order are copied in the margin.*fn1

The crucial question for decision, as was said by the court of appeals, is whether the obligation of an individual surety on such a depository bond terminates with his death. That court answered in the affirmative, one judge dissenting. It likened such a bond to a continuing guaranty whereby the guarantor, without present

[ 300 U.S. Page 34]

     consideration, guarantees a series of future performances, such as payment of the purchase price of goods to be sold, or repayment of money to be advanced, from time to time in the future; and it applied the usual rule that such a guaranty is merely an offer and does not ripen into a contract in respect of any sale or advance until the same is made, and that the guaranty, in so far as it remains merely an offer, may be revoked by the guarantor and is terminated by his death.*fn2

The court rightly recognized that a continuing guaranty, if supported at the outset by a sufficient consideration, is a binding contract which is neither revocable by the guarantor nor terminable by his death, although the acts guaranteed may cover a long or indefinite period of time.*fn3 But it pronounced this rule inapplicable because it regarded the bond as more nearly analogous to a continuing guaranty without present consideration.

We are of opinion that the bond was not a mere offer but was given upon a present and sufficient consideration, and therefore became a binding contract when it was delivered to and approved by the bankruptcy court. The inducement, as also the occasion, for the bond was the designation of the bank as a depository. This was a present, adequate and indivisible consideration.*fn4 Without the bond the bank would not have been

[ 300 U.S. Page 35]

     entitled to the advantages of the designation; while with the bond it was entitled to them. In this regard the bond was like that of a collector of customs, county treasurer, sheriff, clerk of court, administrator, guardian or cashier, as to which it is well settled that the selection of the officer or employe whose fidelity is assured constitutes a present consideration amply supporting the undertaking of the obligors -- sureties as well as principals.*fn5

"It is a presumption of law that the parties to a contract bind not only themselves but their personal representatives. Executors, therefore, are held to be liable on all contracts of the testator which are broken in his lifetime, and, with the exception of contracts in which personal skill or taste is required, on all contracts broken after his death."*fn6

The bond in suit is a contract for the conditional payment of money, not the exercise of personal skill or taste, and therefore is one to which the presumption applies. No doubt it is admissible to restrict the presumption by a stipulation limiting a surety's obligation to defaults occurring within his lifetime, but the present bond does not contain such a stipulation, or anything indicating that such a limitation was intended. On the contrary, its terms are in full accord with the presumption, for in it the obligors expressly declare their purpose to bind not only themselves, but also their executors, administrators and successors, jointly and severally, for the performance of the obligation set forth.

In a long line of decisions relating to bonds not distinguishable from the one in suit it has been held that

[ 300 U.S. Page 36]

     a surety's obligation does not terminate with his death but binds his personal representatives for past and subsequent defaults, as it would bind him if living.*fn7 The principle underlying these decisions is the same that prevails in respect of other related contracts, and we regard it as well sustained in reason and supported by the preponderant weight of authority.

Cases are brought to our attention in which it is held that a surety may terminate his obligation as respects future defaults by giving notice to that effect to the obligee. But these cases are not apposite. In some the instrument sued upon was held to be only a continuing offer without a supporting consideration and therefore revocable as to future transactions. Others rest upon a power so to terminate expressly reserved in the bond or in the applicable statute. Here the bond is a binding contract supported by an adequate consideration, and there is no reservation of a right to terminate in the bond or in the statute under which it was given. Nor has there been any effort to effect such a termination.

Whether the bankruptcy court may, upon appropriate application and showing, discharge a surety on an existing bond, as respects possible future defaults, and require the depository to give another and substituted bond, need not be considered, for no such application or showing appears to have been attempted.

[ 300 U.S. Page 37]

     While the bond was under seal we need not consider the effect to be given to this under the local law, for it affirmatively appears that the bond was given for a present and adequate consideration, which leads to the same result as if the seal were given the effect which would be accorded to it at common law.

It results that the judgment of the court of appeals must be reversed and that of the district court affirmed.

Reversed.

Disposition

84 F.2d 138, reversed; District Court affirmed.


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