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decided: January 6, 1930.



Author: Butler

[ 280 U.S. Page 332]

 MR. JUSTICE BUTLER delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner's father died testate May 20, 1918. The surrogate's court at Rochester, New York, entered a final decree April 19, 1920, pursuant to which certain stocks

[ 280 U.S. Page 333]

     were distributed to the petitioner as one of the residuary legatees. He sold some of them in 1920, 1921 and 1922. For his income tax returns, he computed profit or loss on each sale by comparing the selling price of the stock with its value at the date of the decree of distribution and paid the amounts so determined. But the Commissioner of Internal Revenue held that the values of the stock at the date of testator's death should be taken for the calculation of income, and on that basis assessed for each year an additional tax which petitioner paid under protest. He brought this action in the district court for the western district of New York to recover the amounts so exacted. The court gave judgment for him. 25 F.2d 915. The Circuit Court of Appeals reversed. 30 F.2d 604.

The taxes for 1920 are governed by the Revenue Act of 1918, 40 Stat. 1057, 1060, 1065, and those for 1921 and 1922 by the Act of 1921, 42 Stat. 227, 229, 237. As defined in these laws, gross income includes gains derived from sales of property but does not include the value of property acquired by bequest, devise or descent. ยง 213. Section 202(a) in each Act provides that for the purpose of ascertaining the gain derived or loss sustained from the sale of property "acquired" on or after March 1, 1913, the basis shall be its cost. This provision is made more definite in the Act of 1921 by subdivision (3). It provides that, in case of "property, acquired by bequest, devise, or inheritance, the basis shall be the fair market price or value of such property at the time of such acquisition." It is not suggested by either party that this provision changed the law or that the basis for computing the tax for 1920 under the earlier Act is not the same as that applicable for 1921 and 1922 under the later Act. It is necessary to construe the word "acquired" and the phrase "at the time of such acquisition" to determine whether the value of the stock at the time of testator's

[ 280 U.S. Page 334]

     death or its value on the date of the decree should be used in the calculation.

Upon the death of the owner, title to his real estate passes to his heirs or devisees. A different rule applies to personal property. Title to it does not vest at once in heirs or legatees. United States v. Jones, 236 U.S. 106, 112. But immediately upon the death of the owner there vests in each of them the right to his distributive share of so much as shall remain after proper administration and the right to have it delivered upon entry of the decree of distribution. Sanders v. Soutter, 136 N. Y. 97. Vail v. Vail, 49 Conn. 52. Cook v. McDowell, 52 N. J. Eq. 351. Upon acceptance of the trust there vests in the administrators or executors, as of the date of the death, title to all personal property belonging to the estate; it is taken, not for themselves, but in the right of others for the proper administration of the estate and for distribution of the residue. The decree of distribution confers no new right; it merely identifies the property remaining, evidences right of possession in the heirs or legatees and requires the administrators or executors to deliver it to them. The legal title so given relates back to the date of the death. Foster v. Fifield, 20 Pick. 67, 70. Wager v. Wager, 89 N. Y. 161, 166. Thompson v. Thomas, 30 Miss. 152, 158.

Petitioner's right later to have his share of the residue vested immediately upon testator's death. At that time petitioner became enriched by its worth which was directly related to and would increase or decline correspondingly with the value of the property. And, notwithstanding the postponement of transfer of the legal title to him, Congress unquestionably had power and reasonably might fix value at the time title passed from the decedent as the basis for determining gain or loss upon sale of the right or of the property before or after the decree of distribution. And we think that in substance it would not be inconsistent

[ 280 U.S. Page 335]

     with the rules of law governing the descent and distribution of real and personal property of decedents to construe the words in question to mean the date of death.

Undoubtedly the basis for the ascertainment of gain or loss on the sale of real estate by an heir or devisee is its value at the time of decedent's death. That is "the time of such acquisition." The decree of distribution necessarily is later than, and has no definite relation to, the time when the real estate passes. And generally specific bequests are handed over to the legatees soon after the death of the testator and such property may be and often is sold by them prior to the entry of the decree for final distribution. In such cases ...

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