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Weller v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue

decided: September 9, 1959.


Author: Staley

Before BIGGS, Chief Judge, and MC LAUGHLIN and STALEY, Circuit Judges.

STALEY, Circuit Judge.

These cases present identical questions of law,*fn1 namely, whether the Tax Court erred in holding that certain transactions involving prepayment of interest on annuity contract loans lacked substance so as not to be deductible as interest payments under Section 23(b) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1939, 26 U.S.C.A. § 23(b).

The essential facts in the Emmons case, as found by the Tax Court, may be summarized as follows: Emmons, a cash basis taxpayer, purchased an annual premium annuity policy from Standard Life Insurance Company of Indiana in 1951. The policy required forty-one annual payments of $2,500 each, and the initial premium was paid on December 20, 1951, the date of issuance of the policy. The next day Emmons borrowed on his personal note $59,213.75 from the Girard Trust Corn Exchange Bank, pledging the annuity policy as collateral. This sum was credited to the account of the insurance company as a prepayment, at a discount, of all future premiums on the annuity policy.

On December 24, 1951, Emmons paid an additional $13,627.30 to Standard purportedly as interest to December 20, 1956, on an anticipated loan and received in return a receipt designating the payment as "Interest on Annuity Loan Contract No. AN-53651 to December 20, 1956." Following this payment the "cash or loan" value of the annuity contract had increased to $68,364. The petitioner received exactly that amount on December 27, 1951, and executed an agreement designated "Annuity Loan Agreement," providing for interest at 4 per cent per annum. That same day Emmons repaid the bank the earlier loan, utilizing part of the proceeds of the annuity loan.

One year later, on December 31, 1952, Emmons paid Standard the additional amount of $9,699.64 and received a receipt indicating the payment was for "Annuity Loan Interest to December 20, 1959." The discount rate for prepayment of interest was 2.85 per cent. Thus, the second prepayment of interest increased the cash or loan value of the annuity contract to $73,728 and the increase of $5,364 was received by the taxpayer on the same day. Upon receipt, Emmons executed a second "Annuity Loan Agreement." At the date of the proceeding in the Tax Court the "loans" had not been repaid.

Emmons deducted the $13,627.30 payment as interest in his income tax return filed for 1951 and the $9,699.64 payment in his 1952 tax return. The Commissioner disallowed both deductions, insisting that (1) no indebtedness arose upon which payments of interest may be predicated, and (2) the payments constituted premiums rather than interest.

In arriving at its decision, which was reviewed by the full court, the Tax Court concluded that, despite the fact that the payments in question were in form interest within the meaning of Section 23(b) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1939, the entire transaction lacked substance and therefore was to be ignored for tax purposes.

The facts in the Weller case, except for dates and amounts, are practically the same.

Petitioners' attack on the judgments is essentially twofold. They assert that the payments clearly constituted interest within the meaning of Section 23(b) and were therefore deductible under that section. Additionally, they contend that the Commissioner may not, under the circumstances of these cases, retroactively reverse his prior rulings which allowed similar deductions.

Section 23 of the Internal Revenue Code of 1939, "Deductions from gross income," provides for deductions of "All interest paid or accrued within the taxable year on indebtedness * * *." The Supreme Court has defined the term interest as used in the Internal Revenue Code on several occasions. In Old Colony Railroad Co. v. Commissioner of Interna Revenue, 1932, 284 U.S. 552, 560, 52 S. Ct. 211, 76 L. Ed. 484, it was held to be "the amount which one has contracted to pay for the use of borrowed money." Again, in Deputy v. DuPont, 1940, 308 U.S. 488, 497-498, 60 S. Ct. 363, 368, 84 L. Ed. 416, the Court stated that "* * * although an indebtedness is an obligation, an obligation is not necessarily an 'indebtedness' within the meaning of § 23 (b). Nor are all carrying charges 'interest.' * * * We are dealing with the context of a revenue act and words which have today a well-known meaning. In the business world 'interest on indebtedness' means compensation for the use or forbearance of money. In absence of clear evidence to the contrary, we assume that Congress has used these words in that sense." Applying these definitions to the instant cases, we come to the crux of the government's case. It contends that since interest for tax purposes is confined to payments for the use of money and since no money or other economic benefit was ever in effect advanced to the taxpayers by the insurance company, the payments were not interest.

The Tax Court, and the government on appeal, rely quite heavily on the pattern of conduct evidenced by the taxpayer and Standard. This pattern, as summarized above, involved prepayments of interest which accelerated the cash or loan value of the policy, concurrent borrowing of the accelerated increase in the cash or loan value, thus immediately recouping a major portion of the purported prepayments of interest. The cycle was completed when the taxpayer claimed deductions on his 1951 and 1952 returns of the entire amounts of each prepayment of interest, although his actual outlay was much less. We agree with the conclusion of the Tax Court that, although in form the payments appear to constitute interest within the meaning of Section 23(b) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1939, the entire transaction lacks substance.

Gregory v. Helvering, 1935, 293 U.S. 465, 55 S. Ct. 266, 268, 79 L. Ed. 596, relied upon by the Tax Court, involved the creation of a corporate entity for the purpose of transferring shares of stock to the taxpayer. While recognizing that a real, valid corporate entity was created and that the transaction was within the terms of the statute, the Supreme Court concluded that it was "an elaborate and devious form of conveyance masquerading as a corporate reorganization." The activities were described as "an operation having no business or corporate purpose - a mere device which put on the form of a corporate reorganization as a disguise for concealing its real character, and the sole object and accomplishment of which was the consummation of a preconceived plan, not to reorganize a business * * but to transfer a parcel of corporate shares to the petitioner." The Court there also referred to the rule which excludes from consideration the motive of tax avoidance but determined that it was not pertinent to the situation "because the transaction upon its face lies outside the plain intent of the statute." The question of form versus substance as regards the incidence of taxation has been before the courts on a number of occasions involving numerous differing factual situations. In Higgins v. Smith, 1940, 308 U.S. 473, 476, 60 S. Ct. 355, 357, 84 L. Ed. 406 it was stated that "If * * the Gregory case is viewed as a precedent for the disregard of a transfer of assets without a business purpose but solely to reduce tax liability, it gives support to the natural conclusion that transactions, which do not vary control or change the flow of economic benefits, are to be dismissed from consideration." See Griffiths v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, 1939, 308 U.S. 355, 60 S. Ct. 277, 84 L. Ed. 319. In like vein the Supreme Court stated in Commissioner of Internal Revenue v. Court Holding Co., 1945, 324 U.S. 331, 334, 65 S. Ct. 707, 708, 89 L. Ed. 981, "The incidence of taxation depends upon the substance of a transaction. The tax consequences which arise from gains from a sale of property are not finally to be determined solely by the means employed to transfer legal title. Rather, the transaction must be viewed as a whole, and each step, from the commencement of negotiations to the consummation of the sale, is relevant.* * * To permit the true nature of a transaction to be disguised by mere formalisms, which exist solely to alter tax liabilities, would seriously impair the effective administration of the tax policies of Congress."

Any case of this nature is beset with difficulties, for in viewing the substance of the entire transaction one is faced with the rule alluded to above that enjoins us to disregard the motive of tax avoidance. That is not to say that we are confronted with a dilemma. Far from it. The proper resolution of the problem has succinctly been set forth by Judge Learned Hand in Gilbert v. Commissioner of Internal ...

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