“Lavinia Goodell was insane & not of sound mind or memory.”

Maria Frost’s challenge to Lavinia Goodell’s will, 1880

On April 9, 1880, just nine days after Lavinia Goodell died, one of her executors, Janesville attorney Sanford Hudson, filed an application in Dane County court (although Lavinia had lived in Rock County since 1871 and practiced law there for over five years, she had moved to Madison in November of 1879, making her a Dane County resident at the time of her death) to have her will admitted to probate.

The reason for drafting a will, of course, is to make sure that a person’s estate is distributed in the manner they want, rather than having the property automatically pass to the deceased’s next of kin, which is what generally happens when a person dies intestate. An earlier post discussed Kate Kane’s unsuccessful attempt to collect $50 from Lavinia’s estate. This post will discuss attempts by Lavinia’s sister and eldest nephew to invalidate the entire will.

Soon after Lavinia’s executor gave notice of his intent to admit the will to probate, Lavinia’s sister, Maria Frost, through Janesville attorney William Ruger, filed an answer challenging the admission of the will on three grounds. First, the answer asserted that the will was not properly executed and was illegal and void. Second, it alleged that at the time Lavinia executed the will she was “insane and not of sound or disposing mind.”

Finally, the answer separately challenged, as being uncertain and void,  the Fifth Clause of Lavinia’s will which left the residue of the estate, after the payment of specific bequests, in trust for Maria during her lifetime and provided that after Maria’s death the portion of the estate placed in trust be distributed in equal shares to the causes of woman’s suffrage, temperance, and prison reform. (Read Maria’s entire answer here.) In addition, Attorney Ruger filed a separate answer on behalf of Maria’s eldest son, William Goodell Frost, which challenged the Fifth Clause of Lavinia’s will. (It is not clear why William Goodell Frost filed a separate challenge to the will since conventional probate principles would seem to have dictated that, in the event Lavinia was deemed to have died without a will, her sister would have been the sole beneficiary of the entire estate.)

Lavinia would have no doubt been greatly vexed at these will challenges, but, for Maria, there was a good deal of money at stake. Lavinia left an estate of $6,000, a substantial sum in 1880. Lavinia’s sister and brother-in-law, Rev. Lewis Frost, were often short of money. There are indications that, over the years, Lavinia and her parents either loaned or gave the Frosts funds to tide them over. (A bit of background about the Goodells’ relationship with Maria’s husband may be found here.) In 1880, William Goodell Frost was twenty-six years old, married, and had his own financial difficulties. In addition, as discussed in the post about Kate Kane’s claim against the estate, at the time Lavinia died Maria Frost was contemplating divorcing her husband, and Lavinia wanted to make sure that in the event of a divorce her sister would be as financially flush as possible. It was precisely for these reasons that Lavinia set up a trust for Maria’s portion of the estate, as her parents had done in their wills. The Goodells did not want to have their estates go to Maria outright because they feared that Maria’s husband or her sons might use the money for their own purposes rather than having it go toward making Maria’s life easier. In the event Maria’s attorney had succeeded in invalidating the entire will, the whole estate would have been distributed as if Lavinia had died intestate, meaning Maria would have inherited everything, including the specific bequests of $1,500 and jewelry that Lavinia had made to her cousin Sarah Thomas and her friend Sarah Case and the bequest of law books Lavinia had made to her former partner, Angie King.

The probate court held a hearing on June 1, 1880 to determine the validity of the will. At the hearing, the court heard testimony about the will’s execution from George McCausey, a dentist who was one of the witnesses to the will, and it also considered an affidavit from Clara Normington, a physician who was also a witness. On June 8, 1880, the court rejected the assertion that Lavinia had not been of sound mind when she executed the will, found that the will had been validly executed, and issued an order admitting it into probate.  

Following the June 8 order, Attorney Ruger, on behalf of Maria Frost and William Goodell Frost, filed amended answers continuing to challenge the Fifth Clause of the will as being uncertain. The probate court ultimately agreed with that argument.  On March 2, 1881, Judge Sanborn issued an order finding the Fifth Clause “void for uncertainty” and ordered that the remainder of Lavinia’s estate, after the payment of the specific bequests, be treated as if Lavinia had died intestate and ordered that “the residue of the estate of said deceased be assigned, paid over, and delivered to the said Maria G. Frost, as the sole heir at law of said deceased now surviving.”

It is safe to say that Lavinia would have been extremely unhappy with this outcome, but she may have found some small solace in the fact that in 1882 her sister and Rev. Frost did divorce in Michigan.  (Family letters suggest that William Goodell Frost helped to broker a divorce agreement that both of his parents found palatable.) Although we have not been able to locate the divorce file, so we do not know the terms of the property settlement, perhaps the money that Maria inherited from Lavinia provided her with the financial independence she needed in order to go forward with a divorce that had apparently been an on again, off again proposition for a number of years. Rev. Frost soon remarried. Maria Frost did not. She died in 1899 and is buried, along with her sister and parents, in Berea, Kentucky.

Sources consulted: Estate of Lavinia Goodell (Dane County, Wisconsin probate court); Maria Goodell’s 1882 diary.  

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