APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Grundy County; the Hon.
WILLIAM I. HIBBS, Judge, presiding.
MR. CHIEF JUSTICE BRISTOW DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:
This appeal comes from the circuit court of Grundy County where the trial court directed the jury to find the issues for the defendant, thus resulting in a decree sustaining the validity of a contested will.
Instant proceedings were predicated upon a suit to set aside an instrument purporting to be the last will and testament of Mathew Redmond, deceased. The plaintiffs in the complaint were his sole heirs-at-law, consisting of his brothers, John and Frank Redmond, and his sisters Bernetta Voss and Cecelia LeRette. The suit was brought against Catherine Steele, individually, as chief beneficiary of the purported will, and against her as executrix.
The complaint charged the defendant with undue influence in the procurement of the will, and charged that there existed a confidential relationship between Catherine Steele and Mathew Redmond at the time of the execution of the will.
At the close of plaintiffs' evidence, the court overruled defendant's motion for a directed verdict. At the close of all of the evidence, the trial court directed a verdict for Catherine Steele, individually, and in her representative capacity. Among the assets of Mathew Redmond, disposed of by the will, was real estate, which gives this court jurisdiction to consider the review of the proceeding challenging the propriety of the court's determination that the plaintiffs failed to make out a case of undue influence.
Essentially, there is very little conflict in the proof. It is imperative, however, that we detail the testimony adduced on the trial rather fully so that the legal issues presented here may be properly considered and determined.
Mathew Redmond, the author of the disputed instrument, was a bachelor 64 years of age. He died on September 3, 1953. Thirty-three days previously he executed his will disposing of an estate of approximately $30,000 in value. He left only one dollar each to his brothers and sisters, the balance being bequeathed and devised to Catherine Steele whom he appointed executrix to serve without bond.
The deceased owned his home in Morris, Illinois, where he lived alone since his mother's death in 1945. He was employed as a maintenance man at the Morris Paper Mills, and there he worked steadily until his retirement in the spring of 1953. There was no intimation that Redmond's physical or mental vigor had ever become impaired at all, even though there was some proof that during the last years he had lost some weight.
Catherine Steele, 58 years of age, was married and divorced twice. Her first marriage brought her three children. Mrs. Steele went to work and managed very successfully the problem of the care and education of those youngsters. Now they are all married and doing very well.
In 1930 Mathew Redmond became interested in Mrs. Steele. He first started calling on her at her home on Illinois Avenue in Morris, where she lived with her three children. In 1932 or 1933 Mrs. Steele, with financial assistance from Redmond, purchased another home on Armstrong Street in Morris. During the period that she lived there, the deceased supplied two cook stoves and paid for the installation of a furnace and made other substantial contributions in defraying the expenses of the household. On several occasions Mrs. Steele and Redmond were engaged to be married, and symbolizing such agreement Mathew twice gave Catherine an engagement ring. Although no marriage resulted, the two went together uninterruptedly and with no discord until Redmond's death.
Mrs. Steele moved to Aurora in 1946 and Redmond continued to call on her at least three times a week, notwithstanding the fact that forty miles separated the two cities, Aurora and Morris. He was on friendly terms with members of the Steele family. One daughter, Elsie Hougan in particular, was the object on many occasions of his attention and benevolence. He assisted her in obtaining an education at the college in Normal, Illinois, where she received her credentials qualifying her for a teacher's certificate. In recent years Mathew attended all family functions, dinners, picnics, etc., given by Catherine's relatives. There was constantly a mutuality of interest and affection between Mathew and Catherine's children. He was good to them and they indicated respect and fondness for him.
Unfortunately, Redmond's brothers and sisters, the contestants herein, had become estranged from him. His sister, Cecelia LeRette, who lived next door to him, had slapped her brother Mathew in anger and stopped all social communications. When her brother was lying dead alone in his home on September 3, she would not permit her husband to enter his home without the guidance of the county sheriff. Redmond complained often to his many friends that his family treated him no longer like a brother; that he had to threaten court action to secure from his sister, Bernetta Voss, $12,000 worth of securities that she kept for him in her safety box. He turned these stocks and bonds over to Mrs. Steele for safe keeping after he had obtained them from his sister.
Let us now turn our attention to the events that more immediately pertain to the execution of decedent's will. The record supplies proof that reasonably indicated that Mathew and Catherine were finally to be married in early fall of 1953. Redmond told several of his friends who had been employed with him at the factory of his contemplated marriage. Evidently they had not heard of Mathew's prior engagements to Catherine for they all expressed complete surprise. Redmond was now retired and was placed on a pension, so he was free to move to Aurora to live. This factor seem to relieve the barrier that had delayed this marriage. He and Catherine opened up a joint bank account in the Old Second National Bank in Aurora. At the time of his death this account contained $1328, nearly all of which represented his money. Mrs. Steele had in her name a safety deposit box in a bank in Aurora which contained not only the $12,000 of stocks and bonds of Redmond but also the abstract of title to his real estate in Morris.
William Born, a younger brother of Mrs. Steele, had lived in Aurora since 1931, and was employed along with his sister at the Chicago, Aurora Tailoring Company, he, a cutter, and she, a seamstress. He had met Mathew Redmond twenty years previously at his parents' home and had known him intimately and seen him frequently ever since. Born was separated from his wife and a divorce proceeding was pending, wherein the late George Warner was his attorney. Born's testimony relating to the will episode is as follows: "Redmond came to my home the day in question between 8:30 and 9:00 A.M. and stayed approximately two hours. While assisting me with the laundry, he asked me if I knew a good attorney, and I jokingly said, `What do you need with a lawyer?', and he said, `I would like to make a will, I am getting to the age that I should have a will.' Upon further inquiry I told him, `If George Warner was alive, I could recommend you to him but George Warner has passed away.' Soon he asked me if I knew anything about John Vincent, and I said, `I'll tell you, the business that I had at Warner's office has been transferred over to John Vincent's office', and I said, `An attorney of the calibre of Warner, I don't think he would trust his business to a shyster and he will be all right'. Then I took ...