The Final Will of Presiding Judge Francois-Xavier Martin
Stop 4 of 11 in the 200 Years of Louisiana Supreme Court History tour
In June 1847, the Louisiana Supreme Court upheld the olographic, or hand written, will of its deceased member Presiding Judge Francois-Xavier Martin, who served on the Court for 31 years until March 19, 1846. Judge Martin “retired unwillingly at the age of 84 and died 9 months later on December 10, 1846” in New Orleans, according to the Louisiana Supreme Court Bicentennial publications. Never having married and with no direct descendants, Judge Martin bequeathed his estate valued at $396,841.17 to his younger brother, Paul B. Martin, also unmarried and a resident of New Orleans.
Judge Martin was unable to read his own will because he was legally blind when he wrote and signed his will on May 21, 1844. According to the State, Martin was physically incapable of complying with the requirements of an olographic will. Arguing that the will was invalid, the State claimed a death tax of $39,608.41 from Martin’s brother Paul as executor.
A law had been passed on March 26, 1842, imposing a 10% tax on bequests made to persons living outside of the United States. Judge Martin died without children and his closest relatives lived in France. Several years before his death, his brother Paul had moved from France to live with him in New Orleans. Judge Martin’s nieces and nephews, except one, resided in France. The State contended that Judge Martin intended “to evade especially the statue of 1842,” and his will was made “contrary to law and public order.”
The lower court agreed with the State, annulling Judge Martin’s will and allowing the State to collect the tax. Paul Martin appealed to the Louisiana Supreme Court.
Associate Justice Pierre Rost wrote the opinion for the Louisiana Supreme Court. The Court upheld Judge Martin’s one page hand written will, finding that Judge Martin, after he became blind, could execute an olographic will. Justice Rost reasoned that a blind man could execute an olographic will as long as “[a]ll the formalities required for the validity of olographic wills were strictly complied with.”
The Court then addressed whether Judge Martin secretly intended to evade the 10% tax by willing all of his property to his brother Paul instead of to his foreign relatives. Justice Rost considered the value of property to Judge Martin, a man with no children:
"The last looks of the man of wealth, dying without posterity, are cast upon the property he has amassed; his last hope on earth is, that his succession may live and continue to represent him. The defendant in this case was the instrument selected to give life to that cherished fiction."
The Court concluded that Judge Martin lawfully bequeathed his estate to his brother, without the intent to commit a fraudulent act.
"The representative of the State has faithfully discharged, what, under the information he had received, he conceived to be an official duty. Upon us devolves the more grateful task to determine that he was misled by that information, and that the name of Francois Xavier Martin stands unsullied by fraud."
The Louisiana Supreme Court upheld Judge Martin’s will and no tax was owed to the State of Louisiana.