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In re Will of Glenn Edison Simmons

Filed: October 2, 1979.

IN THE MATTER OF THE WILL OF GLENN EDISON SIMMONS, DECEASED


Appeal by caveators from Caines, Judge. Judgment entered 29 June 1978 in Superior Court, Catawba County. Heard in the Court of Appeals 23 August 1979.

Hedrick, Judge. Judges Martin (Robert M.) and Webb concur.

Hedrick

By various assignments of error, based on numerous exceptions noted in the record, caveators attack the admission of certain testimony of the witnesses Pitts, Townsend and Hedrick. Caveators argue that their testimony was hearsay and in violation of the "Dead Man's" statute, G.S. § 8-51. They contend that the hearsay rule operates to exclude certain of this testimony because such testimony was offered solely to prove the truth of declarations made by decedent before and after execution of the purported will. Furthermore, caveators assert that the provisions of G.S. § 8-51 prohibiting an interested party from testifying in his own behalf and against the estate "concerning a personal transaction or communication between the witness and the deceased person" compel the exclusion of the challenged testimony.

With respect to the testimony of Pitts, the attorney who prepared the "paper writing" in question, we are of the opinion that his testimony regarding transactions and communications with the deceased was properly admitted for the reasons that (1) he is not an "interested witness" within the meaning of G.S. § 8-51; Hall v. Holloman, 136 N.C. 34, 48 S.E. 515 (1904); Propst v. Fisher, 104 N.C. 214, 10 S.E. 295 (1889); and (2) his testimony was not hearsay because it was offered "mostly for the purpose of showing the basis for his opinion that [testator] at the crucial time in question had the mental capacity to execute a will." In re Will of Ricks, 292 N.C. 28, 42, 231 S.E.2d 856, 866 (1977).

Similarly, caveators contend that certain testimony of the witness Townsend was incompetent because it was either hearsay, or in violation of G.S. § 8-51, or both. At the outset, we point out that Townsend was offered as a witness by caveators who now challenge two particular instances of testimony elicited from her on cross-examination. First, caveators attack the action of the trial judge in allowing Townsend to testify as to the reason that

the deceased requested a "no visitors" sign for his hospital door. It appears from the record that caveators had asked Townsend on direct examination about the sign, and she answered that she was not responsible for having it placed on the door. Later, on cross-examination, she testified, without objection, "I had nothing to do with the no visitors sign being placed on Glenn's hospital door. Glenn himself requested the sign." When asked why the decedent so requested, caveators objected and excepted to the overruling of their objection. Thus, Townsend was allowed to state: "Hattie was getting on his [nerves] and he had gotten tired of her making repeated statements, that she was his legal wife and he felt that she was no longer his legal wife."

While the entire matter of the "no visitors" sign might have been irrelevant, since the caveators first raised the question of the sign, and since the witness was allowed, without objection, to testify on cross-examination that the sign was put there at the deceased's request, we find no error in the witness' being permitted to explain how she reached this opinion. Assuming, arguendo, that the Court erred in allowing the testimony, no conceivable prejudice could have resulted to the caveators since the deceased's attitude toward his wife was manifest in all of the testimony.

Secondly, caveators assert that the court erred in allowing Townsend to testify that the deceased gave "accurate" responses to questions at the social security office regarding the preparation of an affidavit legitimating Townsend's children. Responding to questions on cross-examination, Townsend in substance stated that the deceased's responses were accurate according to her personal knowledge. It is settled that the prohibitions of G.S. § 8-51 do not prevent a witness from testifying as to the acts and conduct of the deceased where the witness is merely an observer and is testifying to facts based upon independent knowledge. In re Will of Bowling, 150 N.C. 507, 64 S.E. 368 (1909); March v. Verble, 79 N.C. 19 (1878); 1 Stansbury's N.C. Evidence, Witnesses § 73 (Brandis rev. 1973). Townsend's characterization of the responses as accurate was obviously based on independent facts known to her otherwise than through personal transactions or communications with the deceased. Thus, this assignment of error is without merit.

Caveators' eighteenth and nineteenth assignments of error, based on a number of exceptions duly noted in the record, relate to the testimony of Margie Hedrick, who was also offered as a witness by the caveators, and who testified on direct examination that she had worked for deceased as his bookkeeper and accountant for approximately fifteen years; that she had advised him on business matters many times, but that she did not advise him on personal matters; that she was named executrix under the "paper writing" in question; that she had driven Mr. Simmons to Pitts' office and back home on the day the purported will was prepared; and that she had gone over part of the completed will with the deceased before he executed it. Based on these exceptions, caveators argue that the court erred in allowing the witness on cross-examination to testify as to specific conversations she overheard between Pitts and Mr. Simmons when she accompanied him to the former's office for the preparation of the will in question. Caveators further contend that the court erred in not giving a limiting instruction to the jury with respect to such testimony.

We have carefully examined each exception upon which these contentions are based and find them to be without merit. The witness was offered by the caveators, and all the testimony challenged by these exceptions was fair cross-examination. Moreover, we note that the gist of the "objectionable" testimony concerned personal observations of the deceased by the witness Hedrick rather than "personal transactions or communications" with him. She was merely an observer of, and not a participant in, the conduct she described, and such testimony was clearly admissible. In re Will of Bowling, supra; see also Hodges v. Hodges, 257 N.C. 774, 127 S.E.2d 567 (1962).

Furthermore, even assuming that the testimony was competent only for the limited purpose of showing a basis for Hedrick's opinion as to the deceased's testamentary capacity, In re Will of Ricks, supra, since the caveators did not request a limiting instruction, In re Will of Thompson, 248 N.C. 588, 104 S.E.2d 280 (1958); In re Will of Hinton, 180 N.C. 206, 104 S.E. 341 (1920), under the circumstances of this case we find no error in the ...


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