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decided: January 29, 1945.



Stone, Roberts, Black, Reed, Frankfurter, Douglas, Murphy, Jackson, Rutledge

Author: Roberts

[ 323 U.S. Page 595]

 MR. JUSTICE ROBERTS delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case presents an issue of importance arising under ยง 302 (c) of the Revenue Act of 1926, as amended,*fn1 which requires inclusion, in the gross taxable estate of a decedent, of any interest in property of which the "decedent has at any time made a transfer . . . in contemplation of . . . his death . . ." More specifically, the inquiry is whether the section reaches allowances out of the income of an incompetent person.

Helen Hall Vail died in 1935 intestate. For nine years she had been incurably insane. In 1926 an adjudication of incompetency was entered by the Supreme Court of the State of New York, and a committee was appointed to care for her property, which consisted of income-producing realty and personalty. In addition, she was in receipt of the income of a trust. During the period of five years prior to the adjudication her annual income from all sources had averaged $300,000. She was over 70 years of age but in good physical health. She had a living daughter and three grandsons, children of a deceased daughter. Application was made to the court to make allowances out of income to Mrs. Vail's issue and to a brother and sisters. The court referred the matter to a referee before whom it was shown that she had, over a period of years, allowed

[ 323 U.S. Page 596]

     each of her daughters $6,000, and one of her sisters $500, per annum, and had made gifts to her daughters, but not with regularity. As she was confined in an institution, her total needs, including maintenance and taxes, did not exceed $50,000 per annum. Accumulated income in the hands of the committee amounted to over $750,000.

The court, on the basis of the referee's report, entered an order which, after reciting that Mrs. Vail had made no will, that the daughter and grandchildren, or their issue, would, upon her death, be her only heirs at law and next of kin, and the only persons entitled to share in her estate, and that, if she were in possession of her mental faculties, "she would desire that the allowance hereinafter fixed be made . . . , and would make such allowances to such persons out of her property," directed the committee to pay yearly, in quarterly installments, $50,000 to the living daughter and $50,000 to the guardian of the children of the deceased daughter, $2,000 each to all but one of the brother and sisters; and $3,000 to the remaining sister.

Some six years later an application was made for an increase in the allowance. The matter was again referred for hearing and, on the coming in of the referee's report showing that accumulated income in Mrs. Vail's account had increased to over $1,000,000, that income had averaged, for over five years, approximately $395,000 per annum, and, after paying allowances and all expenses, the surplus averaged about $191,000 a year, the court made an order reciting that she was then 77 years of age and incurable, enumerated the issue who would be entitled to her estate at death, that she had no will, and that if she were competent she would have desired that the sums named in the earlier decree be augmented, raised the allowances to the daughters and to the grandchildren collectively to $75,000, retroactive to the date of the original order. It was never claimed, and is not contended, that the next of kin needed any such allowances for their maintenance

[ 323 U.S. Page 597]

     and support in their station in life. It is conceded that the brother and sisters to whom allowances were made were destitute and in need of maintenance.

At Mrs. Vail's death the allowances theretofore paid totaled $1,377,866.67. The Commissioner of Internal Revenue included the sum in the decedent's gross estate and determined a deficiency. The petitioner, as administrator, paid the sum demanded, claimed a refund and, on denial, instituted this action in the District Court. That court, upon consideration of the record of the proceedings in the Supreme Court of New York, found that the total of the allowances was properly included in the decedent's gross estate, except so much as represented annual payments to the daughter and the grandchildren's guardian of $6,000 each and $500 per annum of the gifts to collaterals, and entered judgment accordingly.*fn2 The Circuit Court of Appeals, by a divided court, affirmed the judgment.*fn3 We granted certiorari.

The Supreme Court of New York is empowered by statute to act as representative of the State, as parens patriae, in caring for the persons and the estates of its incompetent citizens. That court may grant allowances out of income only if it determines that the incompetent would probably have granted such allowances himself had he been sane. The court does not, in any proper sense, act as the incompetent's agent. In the exercise of the power the primary consideration is that the incompetent's property ...

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