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CURRY v. MCCANLESS

decided: May 29, 1939.

CURRY, STATE TAX COMMISSIONER OF ALABAMA, ET AL
v.
MCCANLESS, COMMISSIONER OF FINANCE AND TAXATION OF TENNESSEE



APPEAL FROM THE SUPREME COURT OF TENNESSEE.

Hughes, McReynolds, Butler, Stone, Roberts, Black, Reed, Frankfurter, Douglas

Author: Stone

[ 307 U.S. Page 360]

 MR. JUSTICE STONE delivered the opinion of the Court.

The questions for decision are whether the States of Alabama and Tennessee may each constitutionally impose death taxes upon the transfer of an interest in intangibles held in trust by an Alabama trustee but passing under the will of a beneficiary decedent domiciled in Tennessee; and which of the two states may tax in the event that it is determined that only one state may constitutionally impose the tax.

Decedent, a domiciled resident of Tennessee, by trust indenture transferred certain stocks and bonds upon specified trusts to Title Guarantee Loan & Trust Company, an Alabama corporation doing business in that state. So far as now material, the indenture provided that the net income of the trust property should be paid over to decedent during her lifetime. She reserved the power to remove the trustee and substitute another, which was never done; the power to direct the sale of the trust property and the investment of the proceeds; and the power to dispose of the trust estate by her last will and testament, in which event it was to be "handled and disposed of as directed" in her will. The indenture provided further that in default of disposition by will the property was to be held in trust for the benefit of her husband, son, and daughter. Until decedent's death the trust was administered by the trust company in Alabama and the

[ 307 U.S. Page 361]

     paper evidences of the intangibles held by the trustee were at all times located in Alabama.

By her last will and testament decedent bequeathed the trust property to the trust company in trust for the benefit of her husband, son, and daughter, in different amounts and by different estates from those provided for by the trust indenture, with remainder interests over to the children of the son and the daughter respectively, and to his wife and her husband. By her will testatrix appointed a Tennessee trust company executor "as to all property which I may own in the State of Tennessee at the time of my death," and an Alabama trust company executor "as to all property which I may own in the State of Alabama and also as to all property which I may have the right to dispose of by last will and testament in said state." The will has been probated in Tennessee and in Alabama, and letters testamentary have issued to the two trust companies named as executors in the will.

The present suit was brought by the two executors in a chancery court of Tennessee against appellants, comprising the State Tax Commission of Alabama, and appellee, Commissioner of Finance and Taxation of the State of Tennessee, who are charged with the duty of collecting inheritance or succession taxes in their respective states. The bill of complaint prayed a declaratory judgment pursuant to the Tennessee Declaratory Judgments Act, Tennessee Code, 1932, §§ 8835-8847, determining what portions of the estate of decedent are taxable by the State of Tennessee and what portions by the State of Alabama. Appellants and appellee appeared and by their answers and by stipulation recited in detail the facts already stated and admitted that the taxing officials of each state had imposed or asserted the right to impose an inheritance or death transfer tax on the trust property passing under decedent's will.

[ 307 U.S. Page 362]

     The chancery court of Tennessee decreed that the State of Alabama could lawfully impose the tax and that the inheritance tax law of Tennessee violated the Fourteenth Amendment in so far as it purported to impose a tax measured by the trust property disposed of by decedent's will. The Supreme Court of Tennessee reversed, and entered its decree declaring the trust property disposed of by decedent's will to be "taxable in Tennessee and not taxable in Alabama for purposes of death succession or transfer taxes." 174 Tenn. 1; 118 S. W. 2d 228. The case comes here on an appeal from this decree taken by the taxing officials of Alabama under § 237 (a) of the Judicial Code, 28 U. S. C. § 344 (a).

Alabama has assessed a state inheritance tax on the trust property pursuant to Article XII, c. 2, of its General Revenue Act. Alabama Acts, 1935, pp. 434 et seq. No transfer tax has been assessed upon the property by the Tennessee taxing officials, but they assert the right under the Tennessee statute to tax the transfer under decedent's will of the trust property. Sections 1259 and 1260 of the Tennessee Code of 1932 impose a tax upon the transfer at death by a resident of the state of his intangible property wherever located, including transfers under powers of appointment.

Both the court of chancery of Tennessee and the Supreme Court of Tennessee, conceiving that the Fourteenth Amendment requires the transmission at death of intangibles to be taxed at their "situs" and there only, considered that the primary question for determination was the situs or location to be attributed to the intangibles of the trust estate at the time of decedent's death. After considering all of the relevant factors, the one court concluded that the situs of the intangibles was in Alabama, the other that it was in Tennessee. Despite the impossibility in the circumstances of this case of attributing a single location to that which has no physical

[ 307 U.S. Page 363]

     characteristics and which is associated in numerous intimate ways with both states, both courts have agreed that the Fourteenth Amendment compels the attribution to be made and that, once it is established by judicial pronouncement that the intangibles are in one state rather than the other, the due process clause forbids their taxation in any other.

The doctrine, of recent origin, that the Fourteenth Amendment precludes the taxation of any interest in the same intangible in more than one state has received support to the limited extent that it was applied in Farmers Loan & Trust Co. v. Minnesota, 280 U.S. 204; Baldwin v. Missouri, 281 U.S. 586; First National Bank v. Maine, 284 U.S. 312. Still more recently this Court has declined to give it completely logical application.*fn1 It has never been pressed to the extreme now urged upon us, and we think that neither reason nor authority requires its acceptance in the circumstances of the present case.

That rights in tangibles -- land and chattels -- are to be regarded in many respects as localized at the place where the tangible itself is located for purposes of the jurisdiction of a court to make disposition of putative rights in them, for purposes of conflict of laws, and for purposes of taxation, is a doctrine generally accepted both in the common law and other legal systems before the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment and since.*fn2

[ 307 U.S. Page 364]

     Originating, it has been thought, in the tendency of the mind to identify rights with their physical subjects, see Salmond, Jurisprudence (2nd ed.) 398, its survival and the consequent cleavage between the rules of law applicable to tangibles and those relating to intangibles are attributable to the exclusive dominion exerted over the tangibles themselves by the government within whose territorial limits they are found. Green v. Van Buskirk, 7 Wall. 139, 150; Pennoyer v. Neff, 95 U.S. 714; Arndt v. Griggs, 134 U.S. 316, 320-321. See McDonald v. Mabee, 243 U.S. 90, 91; cf. Harris v. Balk, 198 U.S. 215, 222; Frick v. Pennsylvania, supra, 497. The power of government and its agencies to possess and to exclude others from possessing tangibles, and thus to exclude them from enjoying rights in tangibles located within its territory, affords adequate basis for an exclusive taxing jurisdiction. When we speak of the jurisdiction to tax land or chattels as being exclusively in the state where they are physically located, we mean no more than that the benefit and protection of laws enabling the owner to enjoy the fruits of his ownership and the power to reach effectively the interests protected, for the purpose of subjecting them to payment of a tax, are so narrowly restricted to the state in whose territory the physical property is located as to set practical limits to taxation by others. Other states have been said to be without jurisdiction and so without constitutional power to tax tangibles if, because of their location elsewhere, those states can afford no substantial protection to the rights taxed and cannot effectively lay hold of any interest in the

[ 307 U.S. Page 365]

     property in order to compel payment of the tax. See Union Transit Co. v. Kentucky, 199 U.S. 194, 202; Frick v. Pennsylvania, 268 U.S. 473, 489 et seq.*fn3

Very different considerations, both theoretical and practical, apply to the taxation of intangibles, that is, rights which are not related to physical things. Such

[ 307 U.S. Page 366]

     rights are but relationships between persons, natural or corporate, which the law recognizes by attaching to them certain sanctions enforceable in courts. The power of government over them and the protection which it gives them cannot be exerted through control of a physical thing. They can be made effective only through control over and protection afforded to those persons whose relationships are the origin of the rights. See Chicago, R. I. & P. Ry. Co. v. Sturm, 174 U.S. 710, 716; Harris v. Balk, 198 U.S. 215, 222. Obviously, as sources of actual or potential wealth -- which is an appropriate measure of any tax imposed on ownership or its exercise -- they cannot be dissociated from the persons from whose relationships they are derived. These are not in any sense fictions. They are indisputable realities.

The power to tax "is an incident of sovereignty, and is co-extensive with that to which it is an incident. All subjects over which the sovereign power of a state extends, are objects of taxation; but those over which it does not extend, are, upon the soundest principles, exempt from taxation." McCulloch v. Maryland, 4 Wheat. 316, 429. But this does not mean that the sovereign power of the state does not extend over intangibles of a domiciled resident because they have no physical location within its territory, or that its power to tax is lost because we may choose to say they are located elsewhere. A jurisdiction which does not depend on physical presence within the state is not lost by declaring that it is absent. From the beginning of our constitutional system control over the person at the place of his domicile and his duty there, common to all citizens, to contribute to the support of government have been deemed to afford an ...


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