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In Re Estate of Babcock





Appeal from the Circuit Court of Fulton County; the Hon. Charles H. Wilhelm, Judge, presiding.


The circuit court in this case admitted to probate a copy of Helen Babcock's June 18, 1970, last will and testament, as her last will and testament. In so doing, the court concluded that the presumption of revocation, arising from nonproduction of the original, had been overcome by proof from petitioner Russell Babcock. Respondents Shirley McDonnell and Norman Keane appeal from the judgment admitting the will to probate as Helen Babcock's last will and testament. They contend that the evidence was insufficient to rebut the presumption of revocation. They also assert that two evidentiary errors were made by the court. These included error in the admission into evidence, over Dead Man's Act objection (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1981, ch. 51, par. 2, now Ill. Rev. Stat. 1981, ch. 110, par. 8-201), of certain testimony by Laura Babcock, wife of an interested party, and error in the court's refusal to permit questioning of Shirley McDonnell by her own counsel concerning conversations with the decedent.

The record reveals that Helen Babcock was the wife of Cassius Babcock. Cassius was born in Fulton County, Illinois, one of five brothers. As a young man, Cassius moved to Detroit and there married Helen Keane, the decedent herein. Prior to his death in 1969, Cassius had acquired, via inheritance, an undivided interest in the Babcock family farm in Fulton County, along with his three brothers. The farm, consisting of 276 acres, 176 of which are tillable, had been in the family for over 100 years. Helen and Cassius had been regular visitors there during their marriage. When Cassius died in December 1969, his undivided interest in the farm passed, under his will, to Helen Babcock, his wife and the decedent herein. On June 18, 1970, Helen Babcock executed a will that a Detroit, Michigan, attorney had prepared at her direction. This is the June 18, 1970, will that was probated by the circuit court in this action. In this will she devised whatever interest she had in the Babcock family farm to her deceased husband's brothers, Frank, Hardy and Russell. Coupled with the devise of the farm interest was a direction to distribute to the three brothers, in equal shares, certain funds then on deposit in a Detroit bank account. The residue of her estate, under the will, was given to Shirley McDonnell and a Detroit bank, as trustees, with directions to pay the income and necessary principal, to Helen's sister, Mae, during her life, and at Mae's death, to distribute the remaining assets, in equal shares, to Shirley and her brother Norman Keane. Shirley and Norman were Helen Babcock's only heirs at law at the time of her death.

One of the witnesses to execution of the will, Francis O'Neil, a cousin of Helen's who was living in Detroit, testified at trial by way of deposition. Mr. O'Neil stated that Helen indicated at the time of execution of the will that she was glad to get the farm property back into the hands of the owners, her husband's brothers. O'Neil testified that Helen discussed the will frequently at first, but over the years, not as much. In her discussions with him, however, she always considered the farm to belong to the Babcock family, and indicated her satisfaction that the family would have control over it again.

The substance of the will, with respect to the devise of the farm to her Illinois relatives, was also conveyed by Helen to the Fulton County Babcocks in a 1970 letter. In the letter, Helen stated that the farm property would return to the brothers after her death. Also in the record is correspondence over the years between Helen Babcock and her Fulton County relatives. The correspondence demonstrates a continuing love, affection and friendliness by Helen to them. In a 1971 letter, Helen tells Russell Babcock and his wife, Laura, that she does not want any income from the farm, that they should put it in the bank for taxes. Helen continued, until shortly before her death, to stay in touch with the Illinois Babcocks, and the record contains letters, cards and evidence of phone calls and small cash gifts from her. None of the letters after 1971 that were admitted into evidence mention the will or its dispositive provisions respecting the farm. Neither did any of the letters indicate any intention to or action toward revocation of the June 18, 1970, will or any alteration of its provisions respecting the farm property.

In May 1976, an explosion and fire near the home of Helen and Mae, her sister, required their change of residence, and from May 1976 until March 1977, the sisters moved in with the family of Francis O'Neil, their cousin. Mr. O'Neil, in his deposition, testified that during that time Helen indicated that she still had the will and was happy that she had everything ready in case of her death. During this time, as well, Helen continued to indicate to him her contentment that the Babcock farm would be back with the Babcock family. These conversations between O'Neil and Helen were subsequent to the deaths of two of her brothers-in-law in Fulton County. Hardy died in March 1974, while Frank died in July 1975. As previously noted, Helen continued to keep in close touch with the remaining Illinois Babcocks until shortly before her death in March 1980. Her relations with them continued to be friendly and affectionate.

Respondent Shirley McDonnell, who frequently saw her aunt during the final years of Helen's life, also testified concerning the relationship between Helen and the Fulton County Babcocks. Testifying under section 60 (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1981, ch. 110, par. 60, now Ill. Rev. Stat. 1981, ch. 110, par. 2-1102), as an adverse witness, McDonnell conceded that the relationship was good, but added that sometimes "some things" were said in the privacy of her own home by Helen. She did state that regular communication occurred between Helen and her Fulton County relatives until shortly before her death, including phone calls, letters and gifts. McDonnell indicated that her aunt had never received any income from the Babcock farm and had not requested it. She conceded that her aunt had always told her about the will, and, at one point, that she always knew her aunt was leaving the farm to the Fulton County Babcocks. She also testified that her aunt had never indicated that she had destroyed the will or that she had any intention to revoke it.

Shirley McDonnell also testified that she made a search of her aunt's belongings after her death, and there found a copy of the June 18, 1970, will, which copy was given to McDonnell's Detroit attorney, who then forwarded it to counsel in Fulton County. McDonnell denied entering her aunt's safety deposit box shortly before her aunt's death for the purpose of removing and destroying the original will. She admitted, however, that in February, 1980, only one month before Helen Babcock's death on March 8, she went to the bank and emptied out all of the contents of the safety deposit box. McDonnell stated that she did this at Helen Babcock's direction, who at the time was dying of cancer. She stated that no will was in the box. McDonnell also testified in 1977 she had assisted her aunt in removing the contents of a prior safety deposit box and transferring it to the one which was held at the time of her aunt's death.

Further evidence established that Helen Babcock's savings accounts had been joint accounts, with Shirley McDonnell, some within several months of Helen's death. According to Shirley, this was done so that she could help her aunt with needed business affairs. The record also indicates that Helen and her brother, Norman Keane, each received $50,000 from those accounts after Helen's death.

Petitioner's case also included testimony from Pearl Babcock, wife of deceased Babcock brother, Frank. Pearl indicated the continuous good relations between Helen and the Fulton County relatives throughout Helen's life. She also testified that Helen always declined the family's offer of any income from the farm.

Another witness for petitioner was Laura Babcock, wife of petitioner Russell Babcock, brother-in-law of Helen Babcock and surviving Babcock brother. Laura Babcock's testimony, concerning various conversations she had with the decedent Helen Babcock, was given over the objection by defense counsel that it was contrary to the Dead Man's Act, as Laura was the spouse of an interested party. Her testimony concerned the relationship between Helen and the Babcock family, and was based upon letters and upon phone conversations. She testified that their phone conversations were similar to family visits, during which Helen would inquire about the family members and their health and doings. She stated that Helen always refused any income from the farm, when it was offered, stating that she wanted it put back into the farm. The substance of these conversations corroborated other evidence previously admitted indicating Helen's love and affection toward the Fulton County family. She also testified that Helen had never indicated to her any intention to revoke her 1970 will. In addition, Laura also testified to various letters and cards, which were admitted into evidence, all from Helen to the Babcock family in Fulton County. These indicated a close and continuing affectionate relationship. In addition, Laura testified to a conversation with Helen during which Helen stated that her Michigan relatives, meaning Shirley and Norman, were only concerned with "money, money, money." Additionally, Laura testified to a phone conversation with Shirley McDonnell, after Helen's death, during which Shirley stated that she and Norman always knew that the Illinois family would get the farm. The statement was denied by Shirley during her direct examination.

The respondent's case included testimony by Shirley McDonnell, who had previously testified as an adverse witness during petitioner's presentation of evidence. Her own counsel sought to elicit testimony from her about Helen Babcock's response to a certain letter of May 1976 from a Lewistown attorney to Pearl Babcock. A Dead Man's Act objection was interposed as to any testimony from Shirley McDonnell concerning conversations she had with the decedent Helen Babcock. The objection was sustained over McDonnell's counsel's argument that those matters had been opened up during the prior section 60 examination such that broad latitude ought be given him in examining McDonnell. Thereafter, counsel proceeded with an offer of proof which initially focused upon the effect of the May 1976 fire upon her aunt, and then later on the relationship of her aunt and the O'Neils as well as the 1976 letter and its effects. The testimony concerning the O'Neils focused upon statements by Helen concerning Mr. O'Neil's attempts to talk Helen into helping pay for his son's education and other items. The letter of May 1976 was from a Fulton County attorney to Pearl Babcock, inquiring as to the status of the farm, within the context of Cassius' estate. The import of it was that the attorney did not know what provision had been made in the event of Helen's death. Shirley McDonnell testified that when her aunt received a copy of the letter, she became upset with the Illinois relatives.

Another witness for the respondents was Rose Keane, wife of Norman Keane, a respondent in the action. She testified that Helen's attitude toward the Illinois Babcocks changed as a result of her receipt of the May 1976 letter. She testified that her aunt became upset with the letter, not understanding its meaning. She stated that Helen showed it to her, inquired as to its meaning, and stated that it looked like someone was trying to get something.

The trial court, after hearing all the evidence, probated the June 18, 1970, will of Helen Babcock, finding that the petitioner had overcome the presumption of revocation arising from nonproduction of the original will. In his letter accompanying the order, the trial judge indicated that the case revolved, in part, around determinations of witness credibility. As to the May 1976 letter, testified to by Rose Keane, the court indicated its serious question concerning her credibility and her explanation of the effect of the letter on Helen. The court also noted the extensive and largely uncontested evidence of a continuing attitude of love and affection toward the Illinois Babcocks on the part of Helen Babcock. The court also pointed out that even ...

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