[284 U.S. 206, 207] Mr. Claire B. Bird, of Wausau, Wis., for appellant.
[284 U.S. 206, 208] Messrs. John W. Reynolds, Atty. Gen., and Harold M. Wilkie, of Madison, Wis., for appellees.
Mr. Justice ROBERTS delivered the opinion of the Court.
Appellant, a resident of Marathon county, Wis., married in the year 1927. Subsequent to his marriage he was in receipt of income taxable to him under the income tax statute of the state. His wife, during the same period, received taxable income, composed of a salary, interest, and dividends, and a share of the profits of a partnership with which her husband had no connection. The assessor of incomes assessed against the appellant a tax computed on the combined total of his and his wife's incomes as shown by separate returns, treating the aggregate as his income. The amount so ascertained and assessed exceeded the sum of the taxes which would have been due had their taxable incomes been separately as [284 U.S. 206, 213] sessed. 1 The authority for the assessor's procedure is found in the following sections of the act:
Section 71.05(2)(d): '... In computing taxes and the amount of taxes payable by persons residing together as members of a family, the income of the wife and the income of each child under eighteen years of age shall be added to that of the husband or father, or if he be not living, to that of the head of the family and assessed to him except as hereinafter provided. The taxes levied shall be payable by such husband or head of the family, but if not paid by him may be enforced against any person whose income is included within the tax computation.'
Section 71.09(4)(c): 'Married persons living together as husband and wife may make separate returns or join in a single joint return. In either case the tax shall be computed on the combined average taxable income. The exemptions provided for in subsection (2) of section 71.05 shall be allowed but once and divided equally and the amount of tax due shall be paid by each in the proportion that the average income of each bears to the combined average income.'
Appellant paid the tax under protest, and, after complying with requisite conditions precedent, instituted proceedings to recover so much thereof as was in excess of the tax computed on his own separate income. He asserted that the statute as applied to him violates the Fourteenth Amendment. The Supreme Court of Wisconsin overruled this contention, and affirmed a judgment for appellees. The question is whether the state law as interpreted and applied deprives the taxpayer of due process and of [284 U.S. 206, 214] the equal protection of the law. The appellant says that what the state has done is to assess and collect from him a tax based in part upon the income received by his wife, and that such exaction is arbitrary and discriminatory, and consequently violative of the constitutional guaranties.
At common law the wife's property, owned at the date of marriage or in any manner acquired thereafter, is the property of her husband. Her earnings and income are his, he may dispose of them at will, and he is liable for her debts. Were the status of a married woman in Wisconsin that which she had at common law, the statutory attribution of her income to her husband for income tax would, no doubt, be justifiable. But her spouse's ownership and control of her property have been abolished by the laws of the state. Women are declared to have the same rights as men in the exercise of suffrage, freedom of contract, choice of residence for voting purposes, jury service, holding office, holding and conveying property, care and custody of children, and in all other respects. 2 Under the title 'Property Rights of Married Women,' it is enacted that a wife's real estate and its rents, issues, and profits shall be her sole and separate property as if she were unmarried, and shall not be subject to the disposal of her husband;3 and this is true of her personal property as well, whether owned at the date of marriage or subsequently acquired. 4 She may convey, devise, or bequeath her property, real and personal, as if she were unmarried, and her husband has no right of disposal thereof, nor is it liable for his debts. 5 Either spouse may convey his or her property to the other or create a lien thereon in favor of the other. 6 The individual earnings [284 U.S. 206, 215] of every married woman, except those accruing from labor performed for her husband, or in his employ or payable by him, are her separate property, and are not subject to his control or liable for his debts. 7 She may sue in her own name and have all the remedies of an unmarried woman in regard to her separate property or business and to recover her earnings, and is liable to suit and to the rendition of a judgment, which may be enforced against her separate property as if she were unmarried.