Fourteenth Amendment, Section 1:
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
As a state has authority to regulate transfer of property by wills or inheritance, it may base its succession taxes upon either the transmission or receipt of property by will or by descent. 1 But whatever may be the justification of their power to levy such taxes, since 1905 the states have consistently found themselves restricted by the rule in Union Transit Co. v. Kentucky, 2 which precludes imposition of transfer taxes upon tangible which are permanently located or have an actual situs outside the state.
In the case of intangibles, however, the Court has oscillated in upholding, then rejecting, and again sustaining the levy by more than one state of death taxes upon intangibles. Until 1930, transfer taxes upon intangibles by either the domiciliary or the situs (but nondomiciliary) state, were with rare exceptions approved. Thus, in Bullen v. Wisconsin, 3 the domiciliary state of the creator of a trust was held competent to levy an inheritance tax on an out-of-state trust fund consisting of stocks, bonds, and notes, as the settlor reserved the right to control disposition and to direct payment of income for life. The Court reasoned that such reserved powers were the equivalent to a fee in the property. It took cognizance of the fact that the state in which these intangibles had their situs had also taxed the trust. 4
On the other hand, the mere ownership by a foreign corporation of property in a nondomiciliary state was held insufficient to support a tax by that state on the succession to shares of stock in that corporation owned by a nonresident decedent. 5 Also against the trend was Blodgett v. Silberman, 6 in which the Court defeated collection of a transfer tax by the domiciliary state by treating coins and bank notes deposited by a decedent in a safe deposit box in another state as tangible property. 7
In the course of about two years following the Depression, the Court handed down a group of four decisions that placed the stamp of disapproval upon multiple transfer taxes and – by inference – other multiple taxation of intangibles. 8 The Court found that
practical considerations of wisdom, convenience and justice alike dictate the desirability of a uniform rule confining the jurisdiction to impose death transfer taxes as to intangibles to the State of the [owner’s] domicile. 9 Thus, the Court proceeded to deny the right of nondomiciliary states to tax intangibles, rejecting jurisdictional claims founded upon such bases as control, benefit, protection or situs. During this interval, 1930-1932, multiple transfer taxation of intangibles came to be viewed, not merely as undesirable, but as so arbitrary and unreasonable as to be prohibited by the Due Process Clause.
The Court has expressly overruled only one of these four decisions condemning multiple succession taxation of intangibles. In 1939, in Curry v. McCanless, the Court announced a departure from
[t]he doctrine, of recent origin, that the Fourteenth Amendment precludes the taxation of any interest in the same intangible in more than one state . . . . 10 Taking cognizance of the fact that this doctrine had never been extended to the field of income taxation or consistently applied in the field of property taxation, the Court declared that a correct interpretation of constitutional requirements would dictate the following conclusions:
From the beginning of our constitutional system control over the person at the place of his domicile and his duty there, common to all citizens, to contribute to the support of government have been deemed to afford an adequate constitutional basis for imposing on him a tax on the use and enjoyment of rights in intangibles measured by their value. . . . But when the taxpayer extends his activities with respect to his intangibles, so as to avail himself of the protection and benefit of the laws of another state, in such a way as to bring his person or property within the reach of the tax gatherer there, the reason for a single place of taxation no longer obtains . . . . [However], the state of domicile is not deprived, by the taxpayer’s activities elsewhere, of its constitutional jurisdiction to tax . . . . 11
In accordance with this line of reasoning, the domicile of a decedent (Tennessee) and the state where a trust received securities conveyed from the decedent by will (Alabama) were both allowed to impose a tax on the transfer of these securities.
In effecting her purposes, the testatrix brought some of the legal interests which she created within the control of one state by selecting a trustee there and others within the control of the other state by making her domicile there. She necessarily invoked the aid of the law of both states, and her legatees, before they can secure and enjoy the benefits of succession, must invoke the law of both. 12
On the authority of Curry v. McCanless, the Court, in Pearson v. McGraw, 13 sustained the application of an Oregon transfer tax to intangibles handled by an Illinois trust company, although the property was never physically present in Oregon. Jurisdiction to tax was viewed as dependent, not on the location of the property in the state, but on the fact that the owner was a resident of Oregon. In Graves v. Elliott, 14 the Court upheld the power of New York, in computing its estate tax, to include in the gross estate of a domiciled decedent the value of a trust of bonds managed in Colorado by a Colorado trust company and already taxed on its transfer by Colorado, which trust the decedent had established while in Colorado and concerning which he had never exercised any of his reserved powers of revocation or change of beneficiaries. It was observed that
the power of disposition of property is the equivalent of ownership. It is a potential source of wealth and its exercise in the case of intangibles is the appropriate subject of taxation at the place of the domicile of the owner of the power. The relinquishment at death, in consequence of the non-exercise in life, of a power to revoke a trust created by a decedent is likewise an appropriate subject of taxation. 15
The costliness of multiple taxation of estates comprising intangibles can be appreciably aggravated if one or more states find that the decedent died domiciled within its borders. In such cases, contesting states may discover that the assets of the estate are insufficient to satisfy their claims. Thus, in Texas v. Florida, 16 the State of Texas filed an original petition in the Supreme Court against three other states who claimed to be the domicile of the decedent, noting that the portion of the estate within Texas alone would not suffice to discharge its own tax, and that its efforts to collect its tax might be defeated by adjudications of domicile by the other states. The Supreme Court disposed of this controversy by sustaining a finding that the decedent had been domiciled in Massachusetts, but intimated that thereafter it would take jurisdiction in like situations only in the event that an estate was valued less than the total of the demands of the several states, so that the latter were confronted with a prospective inability to collect.