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HASSETT v. WELCH ET AL.

decided: February 28, 1938.

HASSETT, FORMER ACTING COLLECTOR
v.
WELCH ET AL., EXECUTORS*FN*



CERTIORARI TO THE CIRCUIT COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FIRST CIRCUIT.

Hughes, McReynolds, Brandeis, Butler, Stone, Roberts, Black; Mr. Justice Cardozo and Mr. Justice Reed took no part in the consideration or decision of these cases.

Author: Roberts

[ 303 U.S. Page 304]

 MR. JUSTICE ROBERTS delivered the opinion of the Court.

The petitioners ask us to hold that § 302 (c) of the Revenue Act of 1926*fn1 as amended by the Joint Resolution of Congress of March 3, 1931,*fn2 and § 803 (a) of the

[ 303 U.S. Page 305]

     Revenue Act of 1932,*fn3 includes in the gross estate of a decedent, for estate tax, property which, before the adoption of the amendments, was irrevocably transferred with reservation of a life estate to the transferor; and that, so applied, the statute does not offend the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution. The numerous cases pending in the courts and the Board of Tax Appeals involving these questions, and the claim that decisions of this court have not settled the matter, moved us to grant certiorari.

The respondents in No. 375 are executors under the will of a decedent who died November 20, 1932. On February 13, 1924, voluntarily and without valuable consideration, he transferred to a trustee property which he expected to receive under the will of his brother, reserving to himself the income for life, directing division of the income after his death between nephews and nieces and distribution of the corpus, upon the death of the survivor of them, amongst their then living issue. After his brother's death, and on October 22, 1926, he duly ratified and confirmed the original trust instrument. The Commissioner ruled that the value of the trust assets should be included in the decedent's gross estate, in the view that the transfer was testamentary, because made in contemplation of death, or intended to take effect in possession or enjoyment at or after death, within the meaning of § 302 (c) of the Revenue Act of 1926. The respondents paid the resulting tax and sued for refund in the District Court of Massachusetts. Judgment went for the Collector.*fn4 The Circuit Court of Appeals held that the District Court erred in concluding that the transfer was made in contemplation of death or was intended to take effect in possession or enjoyment after death. The petitioner nevertheless insisted upon the legality of the

[ 303 U.S. Page 306]

     exaction as the decedent died after the 1931 and 1932 amendments of § 302 (c), which declared the property transferred a part of the gross estate for computation of estate tax, in virtue of the reservation to the transferor of the income for his life. The court overruled the contention, holding that, if so retroactively enforced, the legislation violated the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution, and reversed the judgment.*fn5 In his application for certiorari the petitioner did not assign error to the Circuit Court's ruling as to the non-testamentary character of the transfer but confined his attack to the decision that the amendments of § 302 (c) could not constitutionally be invoked to sustain the tax.

In No. 484 it appears that the decedent died intestate June 4, 1933. The respondent, her son, is her administrator. November 15, 1920, she transferred to him certain cash and securities. On the same day they entered into an agreement reciting an understanding that, in case of his death during her life, the securities and cash should be reconveyed to her and, in the meantime, he should pay her such portions of the income therefrom as she might from time to time request in writing; that while he held the securities he might invest and reinvest; that he should bequeath her all the assets constituting the fund, in case she survived him; that she would reimburse him for any increased income taxes payable by him in virtue of his ownership of the fund and that, if she should survive him and take the property under his will, she would reimburse his estate for state and federal inheritance taxes due by reason of the bequest. The agreement contained other provisions for the safeguarding and separate custody of the fund during the mother's life. The respondent paid the decedent portions of the income upon her request. He executed a will bequeathing

[ 303 U.S. Page 307]

     the property to her on the terms mentioned in the agreement, but upon her death, he revoked the bequest. The Commissioner included the value of the fund in the decedent's gross estate, holding that she had made a transfer within the terms of § 302 (c) of the Revenue Act of 1926, as amended in 1931 and 1932. The Board of Tax Appeals reversed the Commissioner's determination and the Court of Appeals affirmed its action*fn6 upon the authority of the decision of the Circuit Court of Appeals of the First Circuit in No. 375 and that of the Seventh Circuit in Helvering v. Bullard, ante, p. 297.

Counsel for the Government argue that the Joint Resolution of 1931 and § 803 (a) of the Revenue Act of 1932 were intended to impose an estate tax measured by transfers of the sort therein described which had been irrevocably made prior to the passage of the legislation and that, so construed, they are not arbitrarily or unreasonably retroactive and do not offend the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment. Counsel for respondents answer that the enactments were intended to operate only upon transfers subsequently consummated and, if construed to reach the past transfers here involved, violate the amendment. We hold that the statutes are prospective in their operation and do not impose a tax in respect of past irrevocable transfers with reservation of a life interest.

Ascertainment of the intended application of the Joint Resolution of March 3, 1931, and § 803 (a) of the Revenue Act of 1932, involves a reading of them in the light of cases construing similar phraseology of earlier acts, their legislative history and administrative interpretation. There is agreement that § 803 (a) reenacted the substance of the Joint Resolution with but slight verbal differences. It will, therefore, be necessary to quote only

[ 303 U.S. Page 308]

     the Resolution. By it § 302 (c) of the Revenue Act of 1926, supra, ...


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