Towne v. Eisner & the Definition of Income

Income Tax Rule Gain Financial

Income Tax

As counter-intuitive as it may seem, many of the most basic terms in tax law were being argued and debated as recently as one century ago. We tend to think of many terms in tax law – particularly very elementary terms such as “property” and “income” – as things which simply emerged with fixed definitions, presenting little or no controversy since their inception. Here at HTW, we know better: in fact, oftentimes the most elementary terms have been fraught with the greatest level of uncertainty. The average person may not realize it today, but the clarity of many of our essential tax law concepts is the result of an immense amount of mental energy on the part of our legal and political establishment.

The case of Towne v. Eisner (1918) is one example of such mental energy being expended to settle a seemingly simple term. In this case, the full breadth of the term “income” came under contention when a shareholder challenged the tax authorities on the issue of the taxability of stock dividend transactions. This case is significant for a number of reasons, but one reason for its significance stands out among others: through this case, the basic principle that income places someone in an advantageous position was firmly pinned down. This “principle of advantageous position,” to coin a phrase, is still at the heart of our definition of income today.

Let’s look at the (relatively simple) factual scenario of this case in greater detail.

Facts

After a company transferred $1.5 million in profits to its capital account, the taxpayer received a stock dividend consistent with his preexisting ownership stake in the company. The newly received stock had a value of roughly $417,450. The authorities contended that this stock dividend was income within the meaning of the tax law of 1913 – and that this construction of the term “income” within the tax law of 1913 was also consistent with the construction of the same term in the sixteenth amendment – and assessed a tax liability on the taxpayer. Though the taxpayer received additional shares, he did not take a cash dividend, and so the question before the court was whether a valid tax liability could be assessed given that the taxpayer was not actually placed in a financially superior or advantageous position following the stock dividend.

Law

The applicable law was the Revenue Act of 1913. This act contained an income tax provision which was freed from the traditional rule of apportionment present in previous eras. The taxpayer claimed that stock dividends fell outside of the definition of “income” as construed within this act.

Ruling

The court (the Supreme Court of the U.S.) ruled in favor of the taxpayer and threw out the tax liability assessed by the tax authorities. The court cited several earlier cases involving corporate stock dividends in its decision; the essential fact which decided the matter was that the taxpayer was not placed in a financially superior position by way of the transaction. What had occurred was merely a reissuing of stock certificates in order to properly reflect the proportional interests of the shareholder. The taxpayer did not actually “gain” anything from the transaction, he was not placed in a more advantageous position, and so the court ruled that it would be incorrect to say that the taxpayer had received taxable income.

As mentioned above, this basic principle has endured up to the present day and continues to inform our conception of taxable income. This principle informed the construction of the term “income” in various other contexts as well; for instance, the provisions of section 1031 of the tax code follow from the idea that gain should not be taxable if it were merely theoretical rather than actual. Again, though we may see this principle as self-evidently true today, this was not always so, and the case of Towne v. Eisner contributed mightily to the development of this principle.

Source

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Gregory v. Helvering & the Old Roots of Modern Financial Duplicity

Stock Shares Financial Accounting Tax Income Dividend

Creative Finance

I know we promised that the last article would be the final installment of Huddleston Tax Weekly before the return of our XVI Amendment series. Surprisingly, we fibbed a bit. We’d like to sneak in just one more – and now we really promise, just one more – article prior to our return to that series. If this frustrates you, that’s understandable, but hopefully whatever frustration comes to the surface will immediately dissolve after you know what topic to which this article will be devoted: the important case of Gregory v. Helvering (1935). Though not the most well-known financial case, this Great Depression-era piece of litigation is fascinating for a number of reasons. Perhaps the most notable reason for its appeal is its relevance to more modern financial scandals.

In 2017, we have become accustomed to seeing all sorts of financial scandals. Some of these scandals, like the Enron scandal, can be very elaborate and involve complex accounting fraud, insider trading and other kinds of high-brainpower underhandedness. Every trend, no matter its size or significance, can be traced to a single source, and the case of Gregory v. Helvering stands as a legitimate candidate for the forerunner to much of the financial trickery present in recent decades. And this is not necessarily because the taxpayer in Gregory v. Helvering aimed to abuse the law in a nefarious way; the facts of the case, as they’ve come down to us, do not allow for such a conclusion. But in this case we do see an attempt to transact in such a manner that the form of the law is obeyed but its spirit is ignored. And this creative maneuvering is something that we see again and again in the modern era.

Let’s look at the details of this case to get a better sense of why it foreshadows many recent financial scandals.

Facts

The taxpayer owned a company – United Mortgage Corporation – and this company held 1000 shares of another company’s stock (Monitor Securities Corporation). The taxpayer wished to sell this stock but also wished to minimize (or ideally eliminate) the potential tax liability of such a sale. Toward this end, the taxpayer established a new company, Averill Corporation, and then transferred the 1000 shares of Monitor to Averill. The taxpayer then transferred the 1000 shares of Monitor to herself, and then quickly dissolved Averill. The Averill entity clearly had no other function aside from acting as a conduit through which to distribute the shares to the taxpayer. The taxpayer contended that the series of actions which occurred fell under section 112 of the Revenue Act of 1928 as a corporate “reorganization.” If what occurred were in fact reorganization under section 112, the gain realized by the taxpayer would not be taxable.

Law

The relevant subsections of 112 were (g) and (i). Subsection (g) stated that distributions of stock on reorganization to a shareholder in a corporation which was a party to the reorganization will not result in gain (to the receiving shareholder). Subsection (i) lays out a definition of reorganization.

Ruling

The court (Supreme Court of the U.S.) ruled that a legitimate reorganization had not occurred and that the deficiency assessed by the IRS was correct. Even though the taxpayer had apparently satisfied every element of section 112, the court reasoned that section 112 did not apply because the Averill Corporation was clearly a “dummy company” in the sense that it served no other purpose than to eliminate the tax liability which would have normally followed the stock distribution. Hence, though the taxpayer took steps to fall under section 112, what had actually occurred was a dividend, because there was no substance underlying the creation of the Averill Corporation.

What we have here, therefore, is a fascinating early example of creative business maneuvering. The taxpayer either received expert counsel on section 112, or was familiar with section 112 by way of independent research, and the taxpayer established the dummy company for the specific purpose of falling within the meaning of this statute. And even though the steps taken by the taxpayer would seemingly bring the transaction under section 112, the court was not willing to let this type of trickery slide under the judicial radar. In some ways, Gregory v. Helvering represents the embryonic form of more heinous modern trickery, such as the kind perpetrated by Enron’s CFO, Andrew Fastow.

Although what happened here is dwarfed by comparison to modern scenarios, it’s still interesting to see the roots of what goes on around us today.

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Source

Readers who enjoyed this piece should consider viewing our presentation on business formation. This presentation was given by our principal and founder, John Huddleston

Kornfeld v. Commissioner and the Step Transaction Doctrine

Step Transaction Doctrine Legal Theory Tax Deduction

The Step Transaction Doctrine

We will look at one more case before returning to our article series on the sixteenth amendment. This is a case every HTW reader should become very well acquainted with: Kornfeld v. Commissioner (1998). Though it’s primarily an income tax case, it contains a plethora of other important topics and subtopics, and it presents a message which every HTW reader should commit to memory.

In the past, we’ve learned that whether a transaction be taxable is dependent on its substance, and that courts apply the “substance over form” doctrine to determine the true nature of a business transaction. The substance over form doctrine is not the only tool utilized by courts to review a transaction, however; the so-called “step transaction doctrine” is another tool commonly used by courts to clarify the nature of a transaction for tax purposes. Under the step transaction doctrine, multiple “steps” may be classed together and regarded as a single transaction; in this way, steps which may have been taken simply for the specific goal of altering tax liability can be overturned. The step transaction doctrine does not exist to create tax liabilities where none should exist, but to assess tax liability properly by viewing a transaction with the greatest level of accuracy.

In other words, the step transaction doctrine imposes a sort of coherence to a multistep transaction so that it can be properly adjudicated. This is very common in law: legal theories often condense or codify reality so that it can be interpreted using preexisting categories. But the rationale for theories such as the step transaction doctrine is not only about simplicity; there is also the aim of viewing a matter according to its true nature. Even though the step transaction doctrine may “condense” things for the sake of simplicity, many contend that this theory (and other similar theories) portrays matters in a more accurate way, that it provides a clearer sense of what actually occurred. Let’s look at the details of the Kornfeld case to get a better sense of this doctrine and its rationale.

Facts

The facts of this case are a bit complicated. Kornfeld, a highly experienced tax attorney, established a revocable trust which he intended to use to purchase bonds. He entered into an agreement with his daughters in order to claim an amortization deduction on the bonds; the agreement was that Kornfeld would transfer funds (from the trust) to the bond issuing institution equal to the value of a life estate in the bonds and then the daughters would pay the balance on the bonds. The agreement also held that Kornfeld would deliver checks to the daughters for the exact amount which they paid to cover the balance.

Kornfeld and his daughters executed this initial agreement and Kornfeld obtained the bonds. Subsequently, the tax code was changed so that the amortization deduction sought by Kornfeld was made unavailable in situations involving related parties. In response, Kornfeld and his daughters made another agreement which included Kornfeld’s secretary; the second agreement held that the daughters would take a second life estate interest in the bonds following Kornfeld’s death, and that the secretary would have the final remainder interest upon the death of the daughters. Importantly, Kornfeld used IRS valuation tables to create his estimates for the value of his life estate interest. Kornfeld claimed amortization deductions on the bonds and then the IRS assessed a deficiency after they declared that the transaction had failed to produce a genuine life estate in the bonds.

Law

Under U.S. code – specifically section 167 – taxpayers may claim a depreciation deduction of a reasonable amount based on wear and tear for property held primarily for the production of income (such as a bond). IRC subsection 167(d) pertains to life tenants and beneficiaries of trusts. Under these rules, life estate interests in bonds – or “term interests” or limited interests – are considered amortizable (or depreciable) and thus taxpayers may claim a deduction for such an interest. Also see 26 CFR 1.167(a)-1.

Ruling

Applying the step transaction doctrine, the court rejected the argument made by Kornfeld that the payments made to his daughters (and secretary) had no real connection to the bond transaction, and that a genuine life estate interest had been created for tax purposes. The court based its decision on the fact that the seemingly disparate actions of the case were patently interdependent and all served to produce a single, underlying purpose. Kornfeld thought that he had devised a near foolproof scheme to completely avoid any tax liability on the bond transaction, but the court realized that a genuine limited interest had not been created and that Kornfeld had acquired total ownership of the bonds.

The Kornfeld case is a prime example of the step transaction doctrine at work. All HTW readers need to be aware of how the step transaction can affect their tax liabilities; if you aim to acquire a particular kind of tax treatment, you need to understand that your actions preceding any given transaction, as well as your actions which occur after a given transaction, can impact the tax treatment you ultimately receive. In the future – after a few more installments on the sixteenth amendment – we will look at a few more examples of how the step transaction doctrine has been used to alter the tax classification of a series of events.

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Hylton v. United States & the Practical Difficulties of Apportionment

In early June of 1794, Congress passed a “carriage tax” aimed at carriages used for business purposes. The tax was to be collected annually for as long as the carriage owner maintained ownership of the carriage. The original Constitution of the U.S. recognized a distinction between direct taxes and indirect taxes, but it did not establish definitive guidelines for determining whether a new tax is direct or indirect. At the time of the adoption of the Constitution, it was established that poll taxes (or “capitation” taxes) and land taxes were direct taxes, but there was no formal mechanism for sorting a given tax into either category. Hence, though the authority of Congress to pass the carriage tax was never brought into question, what category the tax should be assigned was unclear.

Carriage Tax Constitution Law Amendment

Carriage Tax

In Hylton v. United States (1796), a suit was brought to collect a debt which was derived from the carriage tax. Hylton (the defendant in the original case) claimed that the carriage tax statute was unconstitutional. Hylton reasoned that the carriage tax was a direct tax and because the statute did not follow the rule of apportionment the tax had to be struck down under the Constitution. At the time of the suit, Hylton was in possession of 125 carriages.

The justices of the Supreme Court – who all wrote their own opinion of the case – determined that the carriage tax was an indirect tax and that, consequently, Hylton was liable for the debt. The justices decided that there was no compelling reason to suppose that the carriage tax fell within the meaning of a direct tax as understood by the framers of the Constitution. The framers understood that poll taxes and taxes on land were “direct” taxes; this classification had a basis in the conditions present among the states at that time. Although the carriage tax may have been superficially dissimilar from other indirect taxes in some ways, the justices could not find that this level of dissimilarity warranted classification as a direct tax.

Hylton entered the case with one critical disadvantage: the practical difficulties of apportioning the carriage tax by population were such that classifying the tax as a direct tax would have led to absurd results. Carriage ownership varied greatly from state to state, and so the carriage tax would have imposed an unfair burden on certain states if it were apportioned as a direct tax. The federal government would have been compelled to adopt new and unusual measures in order to artificially correct the unfair burden created by such a tax. The justices all concurred that the unfair results and practical difficulties of apportionment provided sufficient grounds for classification as an indirect tax.

Because the carriage tax was a tax on personal property, the Hylton decision came to the fore nearly one hundred years after it was made during the case of Pollock v. Farmers’ Loan & Trust Co. (1895). The Pollock case ruled that a tax on income from personal property (and real property) was a direct tax and must follow the rule of apportionment; this ruling effectively overturned the decision made in Hylton. Those who objected to the Pollock decision predicated their objection on the fact that the decision made the imposition of a federal income tax a near impossibility. Implementing a federal income tax which followed the apportionment rule would have been excessively burdensome for the federal government for a number of reasons. The sixteenth amendment was drafted in order to bypass the sort of practical difficulties associated with apportionment which was discussed in Hylton.

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The Will of the People

Will People Tax Sixteenth Amendment

Will of the People

The phrase “the will of the people” has greater importance for Americans than it has for citizens of other states around the world. In large part, this stems from our deeply entrenched view of our system of government as a system which has developed entirely from the collective will of a free populace. The American public firmly believes that its governmental institutions are a direct extension of its collective will, a sort of living representation of its political voice. And to a good extent this view is accurate: our system has been informed by non-elite citizens to a considerably greater degree when compared with foreign systems across the globe. Though the history of these United States is much less egalitarian than most people care to appreciate, it is correct to say that the American project is more of a “popular” phenomenon than has been the case throughout most of history.

What most Americans do not realize, however, is that the will of the people can move society in any conceivable direction. Common perception tends to see the people’s collective will as an inherently benign force ceaselessly pushing our country in a way which maximizes our freedom and dispels injustice. But, as is often the case, common perception does not faithfully reflect reality. The will of the people is neither benign nor nefarious; it simply expresses whatever whims the people may have at a given moment. And if the people’s whims happen to push us toward less freedom or less justice – however that is defined – then that is precisely the direction we will be pushed in. Our constitution does not guarantee a certain quantum of freedom; as we learned in our prior installment, it provides that our lives may be encroached upon in any number of ways so long as the people’s will is expressed in the form of amendment.

This fact may come as a shock to many Americans. Our optimism tends to impart benevolent motives onto the public’s collective will in nearly every situation. What we have to understand, however, is that it makes little sense to ascribe any particular value to our collective will because our will can be shaped by just about any force imaginable – expediency, necessity, desire, passion. The sixteenth amendment did not simply address the practical difficulties associated with the apportionment requirement, it also expressed a public desire to ameliorate the widespread economic inequality which was present at the time of its passage. And it also enlarged the sovereignty of the federal government in relation to the states. It would be inaccurate to say that the results which followed the amendment were inherently just or proper; what is true is that these results were congruent with the collective sentiment of that era.

As we explore the sixteenth amendment in greater and greater detail, it is important for us to keep in mind that this amendment only represents the ability of our constitution to express the desires of the public, it is not an example of benevolent societal change.

In our next installment, we will discuss the case of Hylton v. United States (1796) and look at the impact that the ruling of this case had on the development of the sixteenth amendment.

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Essential Points of the Principal Residence Exclusion

Real Estate Property Capital Gains Exclusion Residence

Excluded Capital Gains

In our first essay on section 1031 we promised to explore other sections of the tax code – namely, 1033 and 121 – which may be of interest to our readers. As always with HTC, we are true to our word. In this essay we will discuss some of the basic facts of section 121.

Section 121 is referred to as the “principal residence exclusion” because it allows gains derived from the sale of one’s primary residence to be excluded from taxable income (up to certain limits). Under 121, real property owners are permitted to exclude up to $250,000 in capital gains from the sale of their principal residence; married couples intending to file jointly may exclude up to $500,000.

In order to qualify for section 121 treatment, property owners must prove that they have owned and lived in the property for at least 24 months during the last 60 month period. It is not necessary that these 24 months be consecutive. Hence, under current law, it is theoretically possible to utilize section 121 once every 2 years.

Real property owners who wish to take advantage of section 121 have to keep a close eye on the market trends which affect the value of their property. As we know, property values tend to fluctuate throughout the course of ownership, and if the value rises too high then the property owner may end up having a significant tax liability even after section 121 is invoked. If a property’s value rises too high, converting the residence into a rental property and then utilizing section 1031 after a certain period of time has passed may be an optimal strategy.

In later installments we will cover section 121 in greater detail by examining legal cases and viewing examples of how section 121 has been utilized in real-world scenarios.

*It is worth mentioning that section 121 is the successor to section 1034. Section 1034 allowed taxpayers to defer 100 percent of the capital gain derived from the sale of their primary residence provided that they subsequently acquired another residence of equal or greater value. This section was replaced with the provisions of section 121 in 1997.

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Tracing the Bounds of Section 1031 through Alderson v. Commissioner

Real Estate Property Exchange 1031 Tax

Real Estate

In our previous installment, we learned that whether a transaction falls under section 1031 of the Internal Revenue Code is an extremely important determination. Section 1031 enables taxpayers to receive non-recognition of capital gains when they exchange their real property for another property of like-kind. Real estate transactions can often result in gains of many thousands – and even millions – of dollars, and so receiving non-recognition of this sort under section 1031 can potentially remove very large tax liabilities. For this reason, the qualifications of section 1031 are narrowly construed by courts and so real property owners must carefully observe these qualifications to receive non-recognition treatment.

As with other areas of law, tax law is shaped by judicial opinions. Though the provisions of section 1031 originally emanate from the language of the tax code, the precise contours of these provisions are nonetheless informed and guided by the opinions issued in cases. This is the main reason Huddleston Tax Weekly has focused so heavily on highlighting tax, contract and property cases: it is important that our readers be aware not only of the various laws which may affect them, but also of how these laws apply in real-world scenarios.

The case of Alderson v. Commissioner (1963) gives us a sense of the level of conscientiousness required from the parties of a real estate exchange. As we will explore in detail below, Alderson shows that whether a cash payment is included as a contingency within an agreement is immaterial; the critical factor in determining 1031 treatment is whether an exchange of property of like-kind actually occurred. Alderson also demonstrates that property may be acquired specifically for the purpose of exchanging it as part of a 1031 transaction.

Facts

Alderson (the appellant) agreed to sell his property – referred to as Buena Park in the opinion – to a company known as Alloy Die Casting Company. Before the sale was concluded, Alderson decided he would prefer to exchange his property for another property which he discovered after the original agreement was made. This newly discovered property – Salinas – was then acquired by Alloy and transferred to Alderson in exchange for Buena Park.

The amended agreement between Alderson and Alloy included a contingency clause which stated that Alloy would pay cash for the Buena Park property in event that it could not furnish the Salinas property by a specific date.

Law

To receive section 1031 treatment, a transaction must involve the exchange of properties which are of like-kind. The transaction must also be reciprocal and involve a present transfer of ownership, the transfer cannot occur gradually or incrementally over a period of time.

Ruling

The court (U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit) overturned the opinion of the Tax Court and ruled in favor of Alderson. As noted above, the transaction between Alderson and Alloy was a bit convoluted and involved a formal amendment to the original agreement; two escrow accounts were created as a consequence of the decision made by Alderson to acquire the Salinas property. The Commissioner of Internal Revenue (the respondent) argued that the contingency clause provided evidence for the classification of the transaction as a sale rather than an exchange; the Commissioner also felt that the separate accounts provided evidence for this same conclusion. These arguments ultimately failed to persuade the court.

When determining whether a given transaction falls within the 1031 statute, the court considers the transaction as a whole and bases its decision on the true “substance” of the transaction. Though Alderson did initially agree to a cash sale, and the exchange was complicated by the opening of separate accounts, the substance of the transaction clearly reveals an intention to make an exchange of properties of like-kind. The court does not opine on hypothetical scenarios; the critical fact of Alderson was that the deeds for Buena Park and Salinas were exchanged, not that such an exchange may not have occurred if Salinas were not acquired.

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Property owners should view this video by Jessica Chisholm to learn more about the tax perks of homeownership

Starker v. United States & the Qualifications of Internal Revenue Code Section 1031

Real Estate Property Capital Gains Section 1031

Real Estate Investment

Every real estate owner and investor should take the time to become acquainted with the elements of section 1031 of the Internal Revenue Code. This section allows taxpayers to defer recognition of either gain or loss when they exchange property of like-kind with another party. For any number of reasons, it may be wise for an owner or investor to exchange their property for another. Sans 1031, an exchange of real property would necessarily involve the realization of either gains or losses, and the management of such realization would require substantial investments of time and money. Section 1031 promotes a more open and free marketplace by eliminating the burdens which traditionally follow real estate sales.

Because of the heavy benefits it confers, section 1031 has rigid qualifications which are narrowly construed by courts. One case which illustrates the narrow reading of section 1031 qualifications is Starker v. United States (1977). As we will see, the plaintiff in this well-known case attempted to expand the construction of section 1031 so as to include a complex, multiyear financial transaction in which he took part. The court rejected the plaintiff’s attempt and set a precedent for a narrow construction of 1031.

Before hearing Starker, the court had just settled an earlier case, known was Starker I, which was heard in 1975 and involved the son and daughter-in-law of the plaintiff of the 1977 Starker case. The plaintiff’s son and daughter-in-law had also taken part in the same transaction which formed the basis for the suit of 1977; like the plaintiff, they tried to receive non-recognition of their capital gain under section 1031. The judge in Starker I concluded that the son and daughter-in-law correctly invoked section 1031 and were therefore entitled to a refund for taxes paid on the transaction. The next Starker case was heard by the same judge; this judge reconsidered his earlier decision and ruled against the plaintiff. As we’ve noted before, sometimes no amount of preparation can account for the whims of our magistrates.

Facts

The plaintiff transferred a very large amount of land – approximately 1,843 acres – to a company known as Crown Zellerbach Corporation. In return, the company created an “exchange value” balance on its books. To reduce the balance, the company was supposed to transfer a number of parcels of land to the plaintiff; as part of the agreement, these parcels did not need to be transferred all at the same time, but could be transferred one by one over the course of several years. Collectively, these parcels were supposed to be equal in value to the land given to the company by the plaintiff. The plaintiff also received a “growth factor,” which was interpreted as a type of interest by both the company and the court.

The plaintiff invoked section 1031 when filing the income tax return which included this transaction. The IRS denied this invocation and assessed a tax deficiency of $300,930.31 plus interest. The plaintiff then brought a suit to receive a refund.

The question before the court was whether the plaintiff was in fact entitled to non-recognition under section 1031 given the peculiar characteristics of his exchange.

Law

Under section 1031 of the Internal Revenue Code, taxpayers are entitled to non-recognition of capital gains or losses which arise from the exchange of property of like-kind. The exchange must be reciprocal and involve a present transfer of ownership; it cannot involve a promise to transfer property in the future.

Ruling

The court disallowed section 1031 and ruled in favor of the government. The court rested its decision on a number of factors. One factor was the element of time: the parties did not simultaneously exchange property of like-kind, but instead created a balance which was to be paid off incrementally over a period of time. And in the event that the parcels of land given to the plaintiff did not settle the balance after a period of five years, the agreement between the plaintiff and company held that the company would then transfer cash to cover the remainder. What’s more, two properties transferred by the company were not actually given directly to the plaintiff; the properties were given to the plaintiff’s daughter. And on another occasion, the plaintiff did not specifically receive the title to a property, but was given cash equal to the purchase price of the property along with the company’s right to acquire the property. These and other factors combined to provide a foundation on which the court made its decision to deny non-recognition treatment.

More than anything, our readers should use the Starker case to see the limited availability of section 1031. Where Starker applies, it can be an incredibly useful tool, but know that it only applies in scenarios which explicitly fall under its requirements.

In our upcoming installments, we will look at sections 1033 and 121 and highlight how these sections can also be of use to taxpayers.

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To learn more about the tax benefits of real estate ownership, please view our presentation by CPA Jessica Chisholm

Hawaii Housing Authority v. Midkiff & the Function of Eminent Domain

Law Market Economics Eminent Domain Property

Eminent Domain

One of the most enduring myths about government in the United States is the idea that governmental behavior is more or less congruent with standards of individual morality. In other words, most Americans believe that government authority is shaped and ruled by the same moral standards which shape and rule the behavior of the average individual. Governmental behavior may have special leeway in a few instances, but for the most part it is constrained by the same principles which constrain the typical man on the street.

This idea, while not without foundation, falls well short of capturing the truth. What most people do not realize is that governmental morality is based on processes which are altogether different from those which form the basis for the morality of the individual. Individual morality is based on reciprocity, the classic notion of “give and take”: we refrain from damaging our neighbor’s property or stealing goods from our friends because we expect this same kind of treatment in return. Individual morality is an exchange, it stems from the basic idea that whatever action or inaction we take will be reciprocated by whoever is affected.

And because our government is nothing other than a massive collection of individuals, many people assume that governmental behavior must be based on this same principle. In reality, however, this is not the case, because our government does not take part in the sort of interactions in which the individual takes part. Instead of reciprocity, government behavior is based on reason, it derives from a wholly rational process involving the weighing of pros and cons and the careful analysis of possible outcomes. A good deal of the confusion about government would quickly disappear if this fact were realized.

There are various ways to show that this is an accurate statement; today, we will use the concept of eminent domain to prove our case. Relatively few property owners are aware that the government has the constitutionally conferred power to confiscate private property, and that the exercise of this power is not limited strictly to times of war. Denuded of its lofty name, eminent domain is simply a forcible acquisition of the sort which would be punishable if committed by an individual citizen. Of course, this does not speak to its propriety, but only illustrates the fact that governmental behavior operates according to different rules. Let’s take a peek at the case of Hawaii Housing Authority v. Midkiff (1984) to get a sense of the contours of eminent domain.

Facts

On the island of Oahu, 22 landowners held 72.5 percent of the land titles. This oligopoly led to a distorted market which involved inflated prices and general social discontent. One landowner (the Bishop Estates) held an unusually large portion of land. The Hawaii Legislature passed a measure designed to redistribute the lots held by the Bishop Estates to their corresponding lessees. The legislature reasoned that this transfer of ownership was in the best interests of the entire community. The measure was brought before the Supreme Court of the United States in order to determine its constitutionality.

Law

The doctrine of eminent domain arises from the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. According to the so-called “public use doctrine,” the government has the ability to transfer title of ownership if such a transfer serves a legitimate public good.

Ruling

In an 8-0 (unanimous) decision, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the measure adopted by the Hawaii Legislature was constitutionally valid. The court’s decision of this case was significant because the legislature did not transfer the title of the land to the “public,” but to a larger share of private homeowners. However, though this was the case, the court determined that the legislature’s invocation of eminent domain was valid because the correction of the market conferred a substantial benefit to the general public. In other words, in order for eminent domain to be invoked, private land does not have to be put specifically to public use; it only has to confer a clear benefit to the wider populace.

Of course, circumstances will rarely compel the typical homeowner to master the finer points of eminent domain; but it is still important for virtually every homeowner – and nearly every citizen, for that matter – to have at least a basic understanding of this concept. As citizens, we have to be aware of all the functions of our government, not just those which are the most visible or common. Eminent domain may not dominate the headlines of our most popular media, but as we’ve seen it is still remarkably important.

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In addition to a knowledge of eminent domain, our readers who own property will also benefit from the following presentation about the tax advantages available to homeowners

Mannillo v. Gorski: The Case of the Intrusive Neighbor

Property Law Adverse Possession

Property Law

Most aspiring homeowners understand that owning property involves a great deal of responsibility. When you own property, all of the maintenance and liabilities which would otherwise be taken care of by a landlord are absorbed by you. A leaky faucet, faulty drain or unstable foundation is no longer someone else’s obligation. Usually, the responsibilities of homeownership are fairly mundane and do not place an extreme level of stress on homeowners. Every now and then, however, homeownership presents a unique problem which demands an inordinate amount of attention and energy in order to fix. The case of Mannillo v. Gorski (1969) is one example of such a problem.

Facts

Gorski (the defendant and appellant) acquired possession of a piece of land in 1946. Mannillo (the plaintiff and respondent) possessed a piece of land which was adjacent to Gorski’s land. Gorski’s son made various improvements to Gorski’s property in the summer of 1946. One of these improvements encroached upon Mannillo’s property. The encroachment was quite small and was not easily visible to the casual observer. By the time Mannillo decided to bring a suit against Gorski in order to remove the encroachment, the statutory period of time required for adverse possession had been satisfied. Gorski argued that he had lawfully gained title to the disputed land because his encroachment satisfied both the element of time as well as the other statutory requirements of adverse possession.

The question before the court was: did Gorski gain title to the disputed section of land by way of adverse possession according to the state (in this case, the state of New Jersey) statute?

Law

In order to gain title by way of adverse possession, the possession must be exclusive, continuous, uninterrupted, visible and notorious, and it must satisfy the statutorily defined period of time.

Importantly, the court in Mannillo v. Gorski determined that there need not be an element of knowing intentional hostility on the part of the adverse possessor. Though an earlier court opinion held that such a mental state was required, the court in Mannillo v. Gorski concluded that such a state was unnecessary.

Ruling

The court (the Supreme Court of New Jersey) remanded the case and ordered a new trial. Mannillo had succeeded at the trial court level because the trial court included intentional hostility as part of the requirements for adverse possession. And Gorski had actually been under the impression that the disputed section of land was within his territorial boundary, and so clearly the encroachment could not be said to be knowingly hostile. The Supreme Court threw this requirement out.

However, the court found that Gorski’s encroachment did not necessarily satisfy the requirements of adverse possession because the encroachment was so minor as to be practically unnoticeable without focused scrutiny. In cases involving a minor encroachment across adjacent properties, the true owner must have actual knowledge of the encroachment in order for the requirements of adverse possession to be met. The court ordered the new trial to utilize this updated standard.

Clearly, the facts of Mannillo v. Gorski are not likely to be replicated very often; but Mannillo v. Gorski is still something homeowners should be aware of because it illustrates the sort of bizarre difficulties which can occasionally arise during the course of homeownership. Again, if you own property, you probably will not experience what Mr. Mannillo experienced, but it is still important to be aware of even the most unlikely possibilities.

Image credit: MarkMoz12

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