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.
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.
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.
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.
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