Tax Court in Brief | Commissioner v. Duberstein

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Short Summary:

The case before the Supreme Court deals with two separate cases: Duberstein and Stanton.

Duberstein: Taxpayer Duberstein was president of the Duberstein Iron & Metal Company and for many years, engaged in business with Mohawk Metal Corporation (Mohawk) of which Berman was the president. Periodically, Berman would ask Duberstein whether Duberstein knew of other customers that may be interested in Mohawk’s products; Duberstein provided Berman with the information of potential clients. In 1951, Berman phoned Duberstein to tell him that the potential client information Duberstein provided led to great success and that Berman would like to give Duberstein a present – a Cadillac. Duberstein reluctantly accepted the car from Berman. Understanding the car to be a gift, Duberstein did not include the value of the Cadillac in his gross income for 1951; Mohawk deducted the value of the Cadillac as a business expense on its corporate income tax return.

The Commissioner cited a deficiency worth the Cadillac’s value against Duberstein. Upon review by the Tax Court, the deficiency was affirmed. The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed the Tax Court’s decision.

Stanton: For approximately ten years, taxpayer Stanton was employed by Trinity Church in New York as comptroller of the Church corporation and president of Trinity Operating Company, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Church that managed the Church’s real estate holdings. Effective November 30, 1942, Stanton resigned from both positions. Upon his resignation, the directors of Trinity Operating Company passed a resolution that provided for a gratuity of $20,000 to be paid to Stanton in monthly payments of $2,000 each, in appreciation for his service to the Church. The gratuity was paid to Stanton, and understanding it to be a gift, Stanton did not include the monthly payments in his gross income.

The Commissioner cited a deficiency worth the gratuity against Stanton. After Stanton paid the deficiency, his refund claim was administratively rejected. Stanton filed suit against the U.S. seeking a refund in the District Court for the Eastern District of New York. The trial judge found in favor of Stanton, merely concluding, without explanation, that the transfer was a gift. The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed the District Court’s decision.

The Supreme Court granted the Government’s petition for certiorari due to the important nature of the question in successful administration of U.S. tax laws, and due to the conflicting approaches taken by courts at various levels.

Key Issue:

Whether a voluntary transfer of property from one taxpayer to another – the Cadillac from Berman to Duberstein and the gratuity from the Church to Stanton – amounts to a “gift” within the meaning of IRC § 22(b)(3) (1939)[1] and is thus excluded from the recipient’s gross income, or is considered to have been made out of an obligation or as an incentive for future benefit and is thus included in the recipient’s gross income?

Primary Holdings:

Duberstein: The transfer of the Cadillac from Berman to Duberstein was not a gift, but Berman’s way of compensating Duberstein for his prior assistance and / or incentivizing Berman to continue providing potential customers’ information in the future.

Stanton: The findings of fact by the District Court as to whether the gratuity given by the Church to Stanton upon his resignation were insufficient. The Supreme Court vacated the Court of Appeals’ ruling and remanded the case to the District Court for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

Key Points of Law:

  • IRC § 22(a) (1939) states that, except as otherwise provided in this subtitle, gross income means all income from whatever source derived.
  • The exclusion from gross income of property acquired as a gift was established in the first income tax statute passed under the authority of the Sixteenth Amendment, and has been an essential, but contentious, feature of income tax statutes ever since.
  • IRC § 22(b)(3) (1939) does not use the term ‘gift’ in the common-law sense, but in a more colloquial sense.
  • The Court has shown that the mere absence of a legal or moral obligation to make such a payment does not establish that it is a gift. Old Colony Trust Co. v. Commissioner, 279 U.S. 716, 730 (1929).
  • If the payment proceeds primarily from ‘the constraining force of any moral or legal duty,’ or from ‘the incentive of anticipated benefit’ of an economic nature, it is not a gift. Bogardus v. Commissioner, 302 U.S. 34, 41 (1937).
  • Conversely, ‘(w)here the payment is in return for services rendered, it is irrelevant that the donor derives no economic benefit from it.’ Robertson v. United States, 343 U.S. 711, 714 (1952).
  • A gift within the meaning of IRC § 22(b)(3) (1939) proceeds from a “detached and disinterested generosity,” Commissioner v. LoBue, 351 U.S. 243, 246 (1956), “out of affection, respect, admiration, charity or like impulses.” Robertson v. United States, 343 U.S. 711, 714 (1952).
    • And in this regard, the most critical consideration, as the Court agreed in the leading case here, is the transferor’s ‘intention.’ Bogardus v. Commissioner, 302 U.S. 34, 43 (1937).
  • The conclusion whether a transfer amounts to a ‘gift’ within the meaning of IRC § 22(b)(3) (1939) is one that must be reached on consideration of all the factors, and the primary weight in this area must be given to the conclusions of the trier of fact. See Baker v. Texas & Pacific Ry. Co., 359 U.S. 227 (1959); Commissioner v. Heininger, 320 U.S. 467, 475 (1943); United States v. Yellow Cab Co., 338 U.S. 338, 341 (1949); Bogardus v. Commissioner, 302 U.S. 34, 45 (1937) (dissenting opinion).
  • Appellate review of determinations as to whether a transfer is a ‘gift’ within the meaning of IRC § 22(b)(3) (1939) must be restricted:
    • Where a jury has tried the matter upon correct instructions, the only inquiry is whether it cannot be said that reasonable men could reach differing conclusions on the issue. Baker v. Texas & Pacific Ry. Co., 359 U.S. 227, 228 (1959).
    • Where the trial has been by a judge without a jury, the judge’s findings must stand unless ‘clearly erroneous’ – meaning that, although there is evidence to support the finding, the reviewing court on the entire evidence is left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed. R. Civ. P. 52(a); United States v. United States Gypsum Co., 333 U.S. 364, 395 (1978).
    • This rule applies to factual inferences from undisputed basic facts as will on many occasions, be presented in this area of the law. United States v. United States Gypsum Co., 333 U.S. 364, 394 (1978).
    • Congress has attached identical weight to the findings of the Tax Court. IRC § 7482(a).
  • Rule 52 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure directs a court to ‘find the facts specially and state separately…conclusions of law thereon.’
    • The conclusory, general findings by the District Court in the Stanton Case, were insufficient to meet the requisite standard – a reviewing court need be able to understand the legal standard with which the trier of fact has approached his task.


This case underscores the fact-specific, case-by-case review necessary to determine whether a transfer from one taxpayer to another is a ‘gift’ within the meaning of IRC § 102(a). All circumstances must be considered as each situation is inherently unique. A transfer is deemed to be a gift within the meaning of IRC § 102(a) when it proceeds from a detached and disinterested generosity, out of affection, respect, admiration, charity or like impulses. Additionally, this case emphasizes the near-impossible job faced by Appellate Courts – the deference afforded to the finders of fact leave them little, if any, room to review. With that being said, the lower court must provide the reviewing court with sufficient information as to the legal framework employed to reach its conclusions, in addition to information regarding the conclusions themselves.

[1] Today, the applicable IRC provision is § 102(a).

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