DEMOREST v. CITY BANK FARMERS TRUST CO.(1944)
On Appeals from the Surrogate's Court of New York County, State of New york. [321 U.S. 36, 37] Mr. Francis J. Mahoney, for appellants Demorest.
Mr. James N. Vaughan, for appellant Dyett.
Mr. Albert Stickney, for appellee Emma M. West.
Mr. C. Alexander Capron, for appellee City Bank Farmers Trust Co., trustee.
Mr. Louis J. Merrell, for appellees Title Guarantee & Trust Co. and others.
Mr. Justice JACKSON delivered the opinion of the Court.
Appellants in these two cases challenge the constitutionality of Subdivision 2 of 17-c of the Personal Property Law of the State of New York, approved April 13, 1940.1 [321 U.S. 36, 38] Because of retroactivity it is said to offend the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Federal Constitution by taking for benefit of income beneficiaries property to which the appellants as beneficiaries of principal [321 U.S. 36, 39] claim vested rights. It is asserted, also, to deny equal protection of the laws.
The facts in No. 52 are these: Henry West died in 1934. His will, so far as concerns us, left a residuary estate in trust. Net income less certain payments to a brother was given to his wife during her life or widowhood. Thereafter, subject to certain further trusts, the residue was to go to contingent remaindermen, among whom are the appellants.
At death West owned a number of mortgages. Owing to defaults, titles to nine of the underlying properties were acquired either by foreclosure sale or by deed in lieu thereof, and held in separate accounts as assets of the trust. The trustee's accounting disclosed that two such salvage operations were completed by sale of the properties prior to the enactment of 17-c of the Personal Property Law. No distribution had been made of the proceeds. Objections on behalf of remaindermen questioned the validity of the statute as applied to apportioning such proceeds between income and principal. Surrogate Foley, however, upheld the statute and resolved the apportionment under its terms. His decree was unanimously affirmed by the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court for the First Judicial Department and thereafter was affirmed by the Court of Appeals, two judges dissenting. Matter of West's Estate, 289 N.Y. 423, 46 N.E.2d 501. The case is brought here by appeal.
In No. 227, Auguste Schnitzler died in 1930, leaving a will which put her residuary estate in trust with the income payable to a sister for life. The income beneficiary died in 1939. Salvage operations had begun in the lifetime of the beneficiary and were completed after her death. Surrogate Delehanty found that operation of the statute 'resulted over the whole salvage period in taking for income account more than the whole of what the property earned in that period. The deficit in so-called [321 U.S. 36, 40] 'income' was made up by taking principal, of course.' (40 N.Y.S.2d 554, 555.) He considered the result startling' but settled the accounts under the statute, leaving its validity to be determined by appellate courts. The Court of Appeals affirmed without opinion on the authority of Matter of West and the case comes here by appeal.
The grievance of remaindermen in these cases is not that they have suffered loss or deprivation of any specific property to which they had legal title. Under the law of New York the whole legal estate vests in the trustee for purposes of the trust,2 including title to mortgages and to real estate acquired upon or in lieu of their foreclosure, which becomes personalty for the purposes of the trust. 3 Where the instrument creating the trust directs payment of income to one set of beneficiaries and corpus to another, allocation of receipts and disbursements as between capital and income is sometimes attended with difficulty. Mortgage investments may be imperiled by default in interest only, or payments of principal alone, or of both, but in either event both income and capital interests require protection. Advancements often must be made to remove tax liens or other prior charges, pay costs of foreclosure, make property tenantable, or take care of operating losses, watchmen, or insurance. On final sale the price, together with rentals, may leave either a loss or a profit, and to forego income for a period may result in a better sale of the capital asset. The variety of circumstances under which trustees are called upon to allocate items between capital and income are innumerable in salvage operations, the will rarely provides guidance, and the wisest and most faithful trustee is unable to draw the line with any great assurance. Either the income beneficiary [321 U.S. 36, 41] or the remaindermen may challenge his accounts, for they have equitable interests which chancery will enforce that the trust be administered diligently and faithfully according to the will and the law. The flood of issues as to allotment of receipts and disbursements to capital or income account, following the depression, led the Court of Appeals to attempt to clarify the chancery rules on the subject for better guidance of trustees and the courts that supervise them. 4 When this was only partially successful, the problem of clarification was carried further by legislation. The remaindermen claim an unconstitutional taking of their property results from this legislative enactment of rules for distribution as between income and capital beneficiaries of trust property involved in salvage operations, because they are less favorable to the remainder interests in these cases than the rules they claim otherwise would have applied.
Appellants' contention is that the New York Court of Appeals established a rule of apportionment of proceeds of salvage operations of mortgaged property as between income and principal which became a settled rule of property under which property rights vested in them prior to accounting by the trustees. This, they say, was accomplished by the decisions in Matter of Chapal's Will, 1936, 269 N.Y. 464, 199 N.E. 762, 103 A.L.R. 1268, and Matter of Otis' Will, 1937, 276 N.Y. 101, 11 N.E.2d 556, 115 A.L.R. 875. The Court of Appeals, however, in one of the present cases holds to the contrary, saying that those opinions represent tentative judicial efforts to guide the discretion of trustees; that they did not establish rules of property; and that the legislature appears to have done no more than to direct trustees to do what they already had discretion to do, in which case [321 U.S. 36, 42] remaindermen could not have insisted upon their being surcharged under the law before the enactment.
In thus rejecting appellants' version of its previous decisions the Court of Appeals disposed of their cases on the ground that appellants have never possessed under New York law such a property right as they claim has been taken from them. If this is the case, appellants have no question for us under the Due Process Clause. Decisions of this Court as to its province in such circumstances were summarized in Broad River Power Co. v. South Carolina, 281 U.S. 537, 540 , 50 S.Ct. 401, 402, as follows: 'Whether the state court has denied to rights asserted under local law the protection which the Constitution guarantees is a question upon which the petitioners are entitled to invoke the judgment of this Court. Even though the constitutional protection invoked be denied on nonfederal grounds, it is the province of this Court to inquire whether the decision of the state court rests upon a fair or substantial basis. If unsubstantial, constitutional obligations may not be thus evaded. ... But, if there is no evasion of the constitutional issue, ... and the nonfederal ground of decision has fair support, ... this Court will not inquire whether the rule applied by the state court is right or wrong, or substitute its own view of what should be deemed the better rule for that of the state court.' 5
Despite difference of opinion within the Court of Appeals as to the effect of its earlier cases, we think that the decision of the majority that they did not amount to a [321 U.S. 36, 43] rule of property does rest on a fair and substantial basis. The opinion in the Otis case had indicated a tentative quality in its pronouncements, saying: 'Perhaps it should be added that a general rule for such situations cannot be attained at a bound, that no rule can be final for all cases, and that any rule must in the end be shaped by considerations of business policy. Accordingly, we have here put aside inadequate legal analogies in the endeavor to express fair, convenient, practical guides that will be largely automatic in their application. Only the sure result of time will tell how far we have succeeded.' And the opinion had pointed out that the disbursement of net income during salvage operations was left to the discretion of the trustee with the admonition that the discretion 'should be exercised with appropriate regard for the fact that unless a life tenant gets cash he does not get anything in the here and now.' 276 N. Y. 101, 115, 11 N.E.2d 556, 559, 115 A.L.R. 875.
The executive committee of the Surrogates' Association of the State of New York, composed of the judicial officers immediately charged with application of these decisions to the instruction of and accountings by trustees held a similar view of the discretion left to trustees. The legislature appears to have been of the same mind in adopting the new legislation. 6 The judicial effort was [321 U.S. 36, 44] to formulate general rules to guide fiduciary discretion. The Chapal decision was rendered in response to a trustee's petition for instructions. But while such decisions were useful as precedents, they were felt not adequate to [321 U.S. 36, 45] protect trustees aginst the hazards of litigation in particular cases, and the avowed effort of the court to adapt the law to the situation resulting from the depression failed in practice. 7 Hence the legislature intervened, [321 U.S. 36, 46] adopted a rule which the trustee might have applied before, in its discretion, and prescribed it as a definite standard for setting apart income, protecting trustees against liability to remaindermen if they followed it. What ap- [321 U.S. 36, 47] pears really to have been taken from the remainderman in his right to question the equity of the rule in his individual circumstances, a right which he had while it was a rule of the court. In the case of the Schnitzler trusts where the rule results in invasion of the remainderman's principal to make good to the life beneficiary the statutory allowance of income, Surrogate Delehanty implied, and no one has denied, that the flexibility of the former rule would probably have resulted in a surcharge of the trustee's accounts, and hence that the remainderman has been deprived of the value which benefit of the Chapal-Otis ruile would likely add to his remainder. Of course the very purpose of the statute, as Surrogate Foley points out, is to deprive him of that objection to the accounts, to protect the trustee against that hazard, and to give the remainderman other compensatory advantages. The legislature has furthered certainly at cost of flexibility.
Constitutional validity of this legislation if it had been made applicable to estates of decedents dying after its enactment is not questioned. It is objected only that application to an estate whose administration began before the Act so as to take away the remainderman's right to judicial examination of the trustee's computation of income makes it void for retroactivity.
It may be observed that insofar as appellants stand on the Chapal- Otis rule it can benefit them only if it may be retroactive. Both of these decedents died several years before either of those decisions. If a property right to some particular rule of income allotment in salvage proceeds vested at all, it would seem to have done so at death of the testator. If so, remaindermen would have to show that their property right was established by decisions then in existence, or else that advantages derived from a later judicial decision may not be repealed. The case comes to this: Appellants took remainders at a time when the rules by which to sequester their interests in proceeds from [321 U.S. 36, 48] complicated operations to salvage property were so indefinite that several years later the Court made an effort to devise more definitive rules for the purpose. They were but partly successful, and a few years later the legislature made further and perhaps more authoritative and final rules. Comparing the later with the earlier effort, the remainderman in these particular cases finds himself prejudiced. He says we must confirm him in the earlier by striking down the later of two retroactive rules of law.
This statute does not purport to open accountings already closed or to take away rights or remainders judicially settled under the old rule. The statute is applied only to judicial settlements pending at or instituted after its enactment. Rights to succession by will are created by the state and may be limited, conditioned, or abolished by it. Irving Trust Company v. Day, 314 U.S. 556 , 62 S.Ct. 398, 137 A.L.R. 1093. The whole cluster of vexatious problems arising from uses and trusts, mortmain, the rule against perpetuities, and testamentary directions for accumulations or for suspensions of the power of alienation, is one whose history admonishes against unnecessary rigidity. The state may extend the testamentary privilege on terms which permit tying up of property in trust for possibly long periods. But the state on creation of such a trust does not lose power to devise new and reasonable directions to the trustee to meet new conditions arising during its administration, such as the depression presented to trusts holding mortgages. Cf. Home Building & Loan Association v. Blaisdell, 290 U.S. 398 , 54 S.Ct. 231, 88 A.L. R. 1481. Nothing in the Federal Constitution would warrant us in holding that judicial rules tentatively put forward and leaving much to discretion will deprive the legislature of power to make further reasonable rules which in its opinion will expedite and make more equi- [321 U.S. 36, 49] table the distribution of millions of dollars of property locked in testamentary trusts, even if they do affect the values of various interests and expectancies under the trust. The Fourteenth Amendment does not invalidate the Act in question.
Mr. Justice DOUGLAS, with whom Mr. Justice BLACK concurs.
The New York Court of Appeals stated that in formulating the statutory rule in question the state legislature did no more 'than direct a trustee to do what under the decisions of this court he has discretionary power to do.' 289 N.Y. 423, 430, 46 N.E.2d 501, 505. And it went on to say, 'Before the enactment of this statute, the life tenant could not have demanded as of right the payment to him during liquidation of more of the surplus income than he will receive under the statute. Neither does it appear that the remaindermen could properly have insisted that the trustee should be surcharged if in the exercise of his discretion he had paid to the life tenant the amount which the statute now directs.' Id. That is a question of New York law on which the New York court has the final say. It is none of our business-whether we deem that interpretation to be reasonable or unreasonable, sound or erroneous. Sauer v. New York, 206 U.S. 536 , 545-548, 27 S.Ct. 686, 688-690. And there is no suggestion here that state law has been manipulated in evasion of a federal constitutional right. Fox River Paper Co. v. Railroad Commission, 274 U.S. 651, 657 , 47 S.Ct. 669, 671; Broad River Power Co. v. South Carolina, 281 U.S. 537, 540 , 50 S.Ct. 401, 402. Consequently I can see no possible claim to substantiality of any federal question, whatever view may be taken of the due process clause. I would therefore dismiss the appeal.
[ Footnote 1 ] N.Y.Laws 1940, c. 452, p. 1182, Consol.Laws N.Y. c. 41. The subsection provides:
[ Footnote 2 ] Knox v. Jones, 47 N.Y. 389; Bennett v. Garlock, 79 N.Y. 302, 35 Am. Rep. 517. Cf. 1 Scott on Trusts, p. 3.
[ Footnote 3 ] Lockman v. Reilly, 95 N.Y. 64.
[ Footnote 4 ] In New York, power to 'direct and control the conduct, and settle the accounts' of trustees is allotted to the Surrogate's Court. Surrogate's Court Act 40(3).
[ Footnote 5 ] See same case on rehearing, 282 U.S. 187 , 51 S.Ct. 94; and Sauer v. New York, 206 U.S. 536, 546 , 27 S.Ct. 686, 689; Leathe v. Thomas, 207 U.S. 93 , 28 S.Ct. 30; Vandalia Railroad Co. v. Indiana, 207 U.S. 359, 367 , 28 S.Ct. 130, 132; Enterprise Irrigation Dist. v. Farmers' Mutual Canal Co., 243 U.S. 157, 164 , 37 S.Ct. 318, 320; Ward v. Love County, 253 U.S. 17, 22 , 40 S.Ct. 419, 421; Fox River Paper Co. v. Railroad Commission, 274 U.S. 651, 655 , 47 S.Ct. 669, 671. Compare United Fuel Gas Co. v. Railroad Commission, 278 U.S. 300, 307 , 49 S.Ct. 150, 151; Risty v. Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Ry. Co., 270 U.S. 378, 387 , 46 S.Ct. 236, 240.
[ Footnote 6 ] When it was introduced into the legislature, the bill proposing 17-c carried the following explanatory note by the Surrogates' Association:
[ Footnote 7 ] Surrogate Foley in the Demorest case states the effect of this Act as follows, Matter of West's Estate, 175 Misc. 1044, 1048, 26 N.Y.S.2d 622, 628: