The Attorney General and Mr. Erwin N. Griswold, of Washington, D.C., for respondent.
Mr. Chief Justice HUGHES delivered the opinion of the Court.
Petitioners for writs of certiorari were granted, 'limited to the question whether a debt ascertained to be partially worthless in 1920 was deductible in that year under either section 234(a)(4) or section 234(a)(5 ) (of the Revenue Act of 1918, 40 Stat. 1077) and to the question whether the debt was returnable as taxable income in that year to the extent that it was then ascertained to be worthless.'
Petitioner kept its books during the year 1920 and filed its income tax return for that year on the accrual basis. From March, 1920, to September, 1920, petitioner sold goods to the Cotta Transmission Company for which the latter became indebted in the amount of $39,983.27, represented by open account and unsecured notes. In the latter part of 1920 the Cotta Company found itself in financial straits. Efforts at settlement having failed, a petition in bankruptcy was filed against the Company on December 23, 1920, and a receiver was appointed. In the spring of 1922 the receiver paid to creditors, including petitioner, a dividend of 15 per cent. and, in 1923, a second and final dividend of 12 1/2 per cent.
Petitioner charged off on its books the entire debt on December 28, 1920, and claimed this amount as a deduction in its income tax return for that year. It included as income in its returns for 1922 and 1923 the dividends received in those years. The Commissioner disallowed the amount claimed as a deduction in 1920 but allowed a [292 U.S. 182, 184] deduction in 1923 of $28,715.76, the difference between the full amount of the debt and the two dividends.
On review of the deficiency assessed by the Commissioner for 1920, the Board of Tax Appeals found that the debt was not entirely wortheless at the time it was charged off. An offer had been made in November, 1920, to purchase the assets of the debtor at 33 1/3 per cent. of the creditors' claims and the offer had been declined. The Board concluded that in view of all the circumstances, including the probable expense of the receivership, the debt could be regarded as uncollectible, at the time of the charge-off, to the extent of $28,715.76, and allowed a deduction for 1920 of that amount. 25 B.T.A. 822. This ruling, contested by both the Commissioner and the taxpayer, was reversed by the Circuit Court of Appeals upon the ground that 'there was in 1920 no authority for a debt deduction unless the debt were worthless.' 67 F.(2d) 385, 387. In view of the conflict of decisions upon this point,1 this Court granted writs of certiorari limited as above stated.
1. Petitioner first contends that the debt, to the extent that it was ascertained in 1920 to be worthless was not returnable as gross income in that year, that is, apart from any question of deductions, it was not to be regarded as taxable income at all. We see no merit in this contention. Keeping accounts and making returns on the accrual basis, as distinguished from the cash basis, import that it is the right to receive and not the actual receipt that determines the inclusion of the amount in gross income. When the right to receive an amount becomes [292 U.S. 182, 185] fixed, the right accrues. When a merchandizing concern makes sales, its inventory is reduced and a claim for the purchase price arises. Article 35 of Regulations 45 under the Revenue Act of 1918 provided: 'In the case of a manufacturing, merchandising, or mining business 'gross income' means the total sales, less the cost of goods sold, plus any income from investments and from incidental or outside operations or sources.'