Messrs. Francis Biddle, Atty. Gen., and Samuel O. Clark, Jr., Asst. Atty. Gen., [316 U.S. 56, 57] for petitioner.
Mr. Charles McH. Howard, of Baltimore, Md., for respondent.
Mr. Justice BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.
Because of the importance in the administration of the Federal Estate Tax of the questions involved, we granted certiorari to review the judgment of the Circuit Court of Appeals, 4 Cir., 121 F.2d 307, affirming a decision of the Board of Tax Appeals, 42 B.T.A. 145.
Zachary Smith Reynolds, age 20, died on July 6, 1932. At the time he was beneficiary of three trusts: one created by his father's will in 1918, one by deed executed by his mother in 1923, and one created by his mother's will in 1924. From his father's trust, the decedent was to receive only a portion of the income prior to his twenty-eighth birthday, at which time, if living he was to become the outright owner of the trust property and all accumulated income. His mother's trusts directed that he enjoy the income for life, subject to certain restrictions before he reached the age of 28. Each of the trusts gave the decedent a general testamentary power of appointment over the trust property; in default of exercise of the power the properties were to go to his descendants, or if he had none, to his brother and sisters and their issue per stirpes.
The Commissioner included all the trust property within the decedent's gross estate for the purpose of computing the Federal Estate Tax. The Board of Tax Appeals and the Circuit Court of Appeals, however, held that no part of the trust property should have been included.
The case presents two questions, the first of which is whether the decedent at the time of his death had by virtue of his general powers of appointment, even if never exer- [316 U.S. 56, 58] cised, such an interest in the trust property as to require its inclusion in his gross estate under Section 302(a) of the Revenue Act of 1926, 44 Stat. 9, 70, 26 U.S.C.A. Int.Rev.Acts page 227. This section provides:
The government argues that at the time of his death the decedent had an 'interest' in the trust properties that should have been included in his gross estate, because he, to the exclusion of all other persons, could enjoy the income from them; would have received the corpus of one trust upon reaching the age of 28; and could alone decide to whom the benefits of all the trusts would pass at his death. These rights, it is said, were attributes of ownership substantially equivalent to a fee simple title, subject only to specified restrictions on alienation and the use of income. The respondents deny that the rights of the decedent with respect to any of the three trusts were substantially equivalent to ownership in fee, emphasizing the practical importance of the restrictions on alienation and the use of income, and arguing further that the decedent never actually had the capacity to make an effective testamentary disposition of the property because he died before reaching his majority.
We find it unnecessary to decide between these conflicting contentions on the economic equivalence of the decedent's rights and complete ownership. 1 For even if we as- [316 U.S. 56, 59] sume with the government that the restrictions upon the decedent's use and enjoyment of the trust properties may be dismissed as negligible and that he had the capacity to exercise a testamentary power of appointment, the question still remains: Did the decedent have 'at the time of his death' such an 'interest' as Congress intended to be included in a decedent's gross estate under Section 302(a) of the Revenue Act of 1926? It is not contended that the benefits during life which the trusts provided for the decedent, terminating as they did at his death, made the trust properties part of his gross estate under the statute. And viewing Section 302(a) in its background of legislative, judicial, and administrative history, we cannot reach the conclusion that the words 'interest ... of the decedent at the time of his death' were intended by Congress to include property subject to a general testamentary power of appointment unexercised by the decedent.
The forerunner of Section 302(a) of the Revenue Act of 1926 was Section 202(a) of the Revenue Act of 1916, 39 Stat. 777. In United States v. Field, 255 U.S. 257 , 41 S.Ct. 256, 257, 18 A.L.R. 1461, this Court held that property passing under a general power of appointment exercised by a decedent was not such an 'interest' of the decedent as the 1916 Act brought within the decedent's gross estate. While the holding was limited to exercised powers of appointment, the approach of the Court, the authorities cited, and certain explicit statements2 in the opinion left little doubt that the Court [316 U.S. 56, 60] regarded property subject to unexercised general powers of appointment as similarly beyond the scope of the statutory phrase 'interest of the decedent.'