On Oct. 13, 1972, Sallye Lipscomb French made out her will. Certain specific bequests were ordered, and the residue of her estate then was to be divided equally among Calvary Baptish Church, of which she was a long-time member; St. Matthew's Roman Catholic Cathedral, where her late husband had been active, and Johns Hopkins University.
Twenty days later, Mrs. French died. More than four years later, the fact that she didn't survive for at least 30 days after executing the will has the question of disposition of her estate headed for the Supreme Court.
A 111-year-old District statute requires that a bequest made to "a religious sect, order or denomination" or to a "minister, priest, rabbi, public teacher or preacher of the gospel" is invalid unless the 30-day survival requirement is met.
Both the Superior Court of the District of Columbia and the D.C. Court of Appeals have ruled that the statute involved appears to violate both the First and Fifth Amendments to the Constitution. Both courts have ruled in favor of disbursing the assets to the churches. The Rev. Dr. George Hill, pastor of Calvary, said the amount involved for each church approximates $140,000.
The woman's heirs - a brother and 11 nephews and nieces, most of whom have already received individual bequests - have appealed the case to the Supreme Court, which has agreed to hear arguments during its October term.
In its decision last November, the D.C. Court of Appeals pointed out that "there is no evidence that (the churches) had made any attempts to influence her (Mrs. French's) choice of legatees."
She had, in fact, made two previous wills - in 1960 and 1963 - "in which she had made several religious bequests to both Baptish and Catholic organizations," the court noted.
The coming test of D.C. Code 1973 No. 18-302, as the missing statute is known to the courts, will be watched with interest by religious organizations other than the two immediately involved.
Court records indicate that in an effort to carry out the wishes of deceased benefactors, courts frequently have declared the beneficiary institutions to be charitable or educational rather than of a religious character that would bring them under the statute.
Within recent decades, the Salvation Army, the Little Sisters of the Poor, the Society for the Propagation of the Faith and even the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception have been declared by sympathetic courts not to be religious organizations in order that they might get bequests.
The law, known as a Mortmain statute, is intended to prevent clergy, who often attend the dying in their last hours, from exerting undue influence.
But today, Dr. Hill pointed out, "there are all manner of people who have access to the elderly who could twist some arms. Why single out the clergy?"