Wills, Trusts & Estates Prof Blog

Editor: Gerry W. Beyer
Texas Tech Univ. School of Law

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Article on Mason Lee's Will and Testamentary Capacity

Rigney ErnestErnest Rigney (Associate Professor, College of Charleston) recently published an article entitled, The Contentious Will of Mason Lee: A Clarification of South Carolina's Leading Case Regarding Testamentary Capacity, 20 J.S. Legal Hist. 61 (2012). Provided below is the introduction to his article:

Near the small town of Bristow, South Carolina, several yards from the intersection of S.C. Highway 38 and Gray Road, stands an isolated historical marker erected in 1975 by the Marlboro County Historical Preservation Commission. It is doubtful that many South Carolinians are familiar with the person or event commemorated by this historical marker; to wit, Mason Lee (1770-1821) or his contested last will and testament, which also left its mark on South Carolina probate case law. Fortunately, the inscriptions on the front and back of the marker offer, in addition to brief descriptions of Lee and his contested will, an explanation of the enduring legal significance of the will contest’s outcome.

One side of the marker identifies Lee as “a wealthy Pee Dee planter known for his eccentricities.” A brief sampling of Lee’s eccentric beliefs is then provided: “He believed all women were witches .... He felt [his relatives] used supernatural agents to bewitch him and went to great extremes to avoid these supposed powers.”

The other side of the marker continues the story by noting that Lee, because of his eccentric beliefs, prepared a will that bequeathed and devised his entire estate not to his surviving heirs, but to the states of South Carolina and Tennessee. The heirs challenged the validity of the will claiming Lee was not legally competent at the time he executed his will. An appellate court’s ruling in 1827 upheld the lower court’s verdict in favor of the will. As a consequence, the will contest became “the leading case in South Carolina regarding mental capacity in the execution of a will.” 

This unusual historical marker is certainly not an exhaustive chronicle of Mason Lee’s life or the legal proceedings surrounding his controversial will. In fact, the information it contains about Lee’s eccentricities was extrapolated from testimony proffered by witnesses challenging the validity of Lee’s will; it was these same contestants who lost their case both at trial and on appeal. Solely relying on information culled from the contestants’ case is not a problem unique to the Marlboro County Historical Preservation Commission. Most accounts of Lee’s case tend to devote a disproportionate amount of attention to the contestants’ case. Why should the losing party’s characterizations of Lee’s beliefs and actions be treated as unbiased and factual biographical data? An overemphasis on the contestants’ case combined with an insufficient emphasis on the proponents’ case renders the trial court’s verdict both suspect and ridiculous. Subsequently, the appellate court’s decision to uphold the will appears equally questionable and inadequate. This imbalanced yet prevalent approach to Lee’s case strongly suggests that a verdict handed down by law triumphed over what justice and common sense required--a decision against Lee’s putative will. Was Lee’s victory a lawful but unjust outcome? Until this question is adequately addressed, it will remain an open and unsettling query.

The following sections address the aforementioned question in two interrelated ways. First, by reexamining the available historical and biographical materials associated with Mason Lee, his relatives, and the contest over his will, a more substantial account of these people and events will be possible. Second, by fully describing the successful strategy used by the proponents, the myth of Mason Lee as an incompetent testator who circumvented justice will be debunked.


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