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COOLIDGE V. LONG, 282 U. S. 582 (1931)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Coolidge v. Long, 282 U.S. 582 (1931)

Coolidge v. Long

Nos. 33 and 34

Argued December 8, 1930

Decided February 24, 1931

282 U.S. 582


By voluntary deeds of trust, a husband and wife transferred real and personal property, owned by them severally in certain proportions, to trustees, in trust to pay the income in those proportions to the settlors during their joint lives and then the entire income to the survivor of them, and upon the death of the survivor to divide the principal equally among the settlors' five sons, provided that, if any of the sons should predecease the survivor of the settlors, the share of that son should go to those entitled to take his intestate property under the statute of distribution in force at the death of such survivor. The deeds reserved no power of revocation, modification, or termination prior to the death of the survivor of the settlors. After both settlors had died, the state imposed succession taxes upon the remainder interests of the sons, under a statute passed before the deaths of the settlors but after the creation of the trusts (Gen.Laws chanroblesvirtualawlibrary

Page 282 U. S. 583

Mass. 1921, c. 65, § 1) which provides that all property within the jurisdiction of the state which shall pass by deed, grant or gift (except in cases of bona fide purchase for full consideration in money or money's worth) made or intended to take effect in possession or enjoyment after the death of the grantor, to any person, absolutely or in trust, shall be subject to a tax. The court below decided that the tax was valid as an excise on the succession.


1. The trust deeds are contracts within the meaning of the Federal Constitution. The state cannot by subsequent legislation, alter their effect or impair or destroy rights that had vested under them. P. 282 U. S. 595.

2. Under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, a gift cannot be taxed by a state under a law that was enacted after the gift was fully consummated. P. 282 U. S. 595.

3. When the jurisdiction of this Court is invoked to determine whether a state law impairs the rights of the litigant under a prior contract, or whether the state is depriving him of his property without due process of law and the question turns upon the existence and terms of a contract, this Court is bound to determine for itself whether there is a contract, and to ascertain its true meaning and effect. P. 282 U. S. 597.

4. The succession of each son was complete when the trust deeds took effect, and the enforcement of the statute imposing the excise would be repugnant to the contract clause of the Constitution and the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Pp. 282 U. S. 597-605.


By the deed of each grantor, one fifth of the remainder was vested in each of the sons, subject to be divested only by his death before the death of the survivor of the settlors. It was a grant in praesenti, to be possessed and enjoyed by the sons upon the death of such survivor. The provision for the payment of income to the settlors during their lives did not operate to postpone the vesting in the sons of the right of possession or enjoyment. The deaths of the settlors were not a generating source of any right in the remaindermen; nothing moved from them, or either of them, or from their estates, when either of them died. The succession, when the time came, did not depend upon any permission or grant of the state. While the sons, if occasion should arise, might by suit require the trustees to account, the property was never in the custody of the law or of any court, and the state was powerless to condition the possession or enjoyment of what had been conveyed to them by the deeds. The fact that each son was liable to be divested of the chanroblesvirtualawlibrary

Page 282 U. S. 584

reminder by his own death before that of the survivor of the grantors, does not render the succession incomplete. The vesting of actual possession and enjoyment depended upon al event that must inevitably happen by the efflux of time, and nothing but his failure to survive the settlors could prevent it. Succession is effected as completely by a transfer of a life estate to one and remainder over to another, as by a transfer in fee. No Act of Congress has been held by this Court to impose a tax upon possession and enjoyment, the right to which had fully vested prior to the enactment, nor has this Court sustained any state law imposing an excise upon mere entry into possession and enjoyment of property where the right to such possession and enjoyment upon the happening of a specified event had fully vested before the enactment.

28 Mass. 443, 167 N.E. 757, reversed.

Appeals from final decrees sustaining inheritance taxes. The decrees were entered by the Probate Court upon rescripts from the Supreme Judicial Court. chanroblesvirtualawlibrary

Page 282 U. S. 593

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