Mercantile Trust Co. v. Commissioner & the Limited Importance of Contingencies

Real Estate Property Transaction Exchange

Real Property Exchange

Nearly every legal concept presently in use in these United States has an established pedigree. Very few of our concepts are recent inventions. This observation holds true not just in one or two areas of law but for quite literally our entire legal edifice. Section 1031 is no exception to this rule. Section 1031 is derived from a number of earlier tax acts which addressed the non-recognition of gains (or losses) when real property held for business or investment purposes is exchanged for like-kind property. Today, courts utilize the judicial opinions made in previous eras which were informed by one of these earlier tax acts. The case of Mercantile Trust Co. v. Commissioner (1935) is among the most significant of these opinions.

As we will see, Mercantile Trust Co. set an important precedent for viewing complex real property exchange transactions. Like the parties in Alderson v. Commissioner, the parties of Mercantile Trust Co. engaged in a complex transaction which involved multiple independent contracts, the use of an intermediary and a cash payment as “boot” on top of the exchange. In its opinion, the court emphasized that non-recognition depends primarily on what actually occurred, rather than on the various methods and motives which ultimately led to the transaction. Simply because a contingency could have given rise to a sale – and therefore would have created a taxable gain – does not necessarily bar non-recognition; the most important fact is whether an exchange of like-kind property actually transpired.

Facts

The representatives for Mercantile Trust Co. (the petitioners) appealed a judgment for a tax deficiency arising from a transaction involving Mercantile Trust Co., an intermediary (known as Title Guarantee & Trust Co.) and Emerson Hotel Co. The Commissioner of Internal Revenue (the respondents) claimed that the transaction amounted to a sale and that the petitioners had a recognized gain of $179,621 (approximately $2,521,070.02 when adjusted for inflation in 2016). The petitioners argued that the transaction had been an exchange of real property of like-kind within the scope of existing statutory provisions.

Title Guarantee & Trust Co., the intermediary, developed separate contracts with Mercantile and Emerson. To conclude certain of these contracts Title Guarantee made cash payments to the other party, and to conclude other contracts Title Guarantee accepted cash payments. Mercantile Trust Co. ultimately received the deed to the property (known as Lexington Street) originally held by Emerson Hotel Co. as well as a total of $24,426.90 in cash. Emerson Hotel Co. received the deed to the property originally held by Mercantile Trust Co. (known as Baltimore Street). Title Guarantee received commissions and title fees which added up to $8,573.10.

The respondents assessed the tax deficiency on the premise that Mercantile Trust Co. acquired the Lexington Street property in a separate transaction which should be considered a sale. The question before the court was whether the evidence on record supported this premise.

Law

The statutory provisions which applied to the case arose from section 112 of the Revenue Act of 1928. Section 112 (of the act of 1928) is the predecessor of section 1031 and includes many of the same provisions as the current law.

Ruling

The court (the U.S. Tax Court, known as the Board of Tax Appeals in 1935) ruled in favor of the petitioners and declared that the deficiency assessed by the Commissioner was without basis. The Commissioner argued that what had occurred was a “fictitious” exchange and that the Lexington Street property was acquired by Mercantile Trust Co. in an independent sales transaction. The tax court rejected this argument. The contract made between Mercantile Trust Co. and Title Guarantee included a contingency whereby Title Guarantee would pay $300,000 in cash in the event that the deed to the Lexington Street property could not be transferred. The court determined that this contingency did not negate non-recognition treatment given that an exchange of like-kind property did occur.

The reasoning employed by the tax court in Mercantile Trust Co. influenced later decisions, including the decision made in Alderson. The determination of non-recognition treatment depends heavily on the end result and not as much on the methods used to reach that result.

Image credit: Mike Fleming

Readers who enjoyed this piece about the famous case of Mercantile Trust Co. should check out our video on the tax perks of real estate ownership given by CPA Jessica Chisholm

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Seattle CPA+John Huddleston has written extensively on tax related subjects of interest to small business owners. He is a graduate of Washington State University and the University of Washington School of Law.

Huddleston Tax CPAs of Seattle & Bellevue
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