The 11th Circuit on estate tax valuation discounts; dissent decries "doctrine of ignoble ease"

Estate of Jelke v. C.I.R., --- F.3d ----, 2007 WL 3378539 (11th Cir. Nov 15, 2007)

The best nugget of wisdom - and most entertaining quote - found in this opinion comes from Judge Carnes' dissent:

The death of a human being is profoundly important to the person who dies, but it matters not one whit to the laws of economics, which dictate the self-interest of the living.

At the end of the day, once you strip away all the extraneous drama inherent to most trusts-and-estates litigation, that's what it all boils down to: the laws of economics, dollars and cents, i.e., "show me the money."  Forget that bit of insight in the heat of a case and you're toast.

Now back to the scintillating world of estate-tax valuation law.

In this case the 11th Circuit reversed the Tax Court by holding that the proper valuation approach for estate tax purposes of stock interest owned by the decedent in a closely-held, investment holding company, was to apply a dollar-for-dollar reduction of the company's entire built-in capital gains tax liability.  The logic of this approach is best understood in terms of a concrete example, which the court provided at Footnote 25:

FN25. The Second Circuit used an example from tax treatise, Bittker & Eustice, Federal Income Taxation of Corporations and Shareholders ¶ 10.41 [4] n. 11 (Warren, Gorham & Lamont, 6th ed.1998), to illustrate that a hypothetical buyer and seller would allow a discount for built in capital gains tax:

In the example, A owns 100% of the stock of X corporation, which owns one asset, a machine with a value of $1,000, and a basis of $200. Bittker assumes a 25% tax rate and points out that if X sells the machine to Z for $1,000, X will pay tax of $200 on the $800 gain. Bittker adds that if Z buys the stock for $1,000 “on the mistaken theory that the stock is worth the value of the corporate assets,” Z will have lost $200 economically “because it paid too much for the stock, failing to account for the built-in tax liability (which can be viewed as the potential tax on disposition of the machine, or as the potential loss from lock of depreciation on $800 [of] basis that Z will not enjoy.”) Because of Z's loss, Bittker concludes, “Z will want to pay only $800 for the stock, in which even A will have effectively ‘paid’ the $200 built-in gains tax.”

Estate of Eisenberg, 155 F.3d at 58 n. 15.

Now that I've hit the tax issue, I want to come back to Judge Carnes' dissent.  He argues that the majority took the easy road when it overruled the Tax Court.  For Judge Carnes, taking the easy road is a much bigger SIN than calling a tax issue the wrong way.  Taking the easy road leads to the downfall of civilization!!  So saith Judge Carnes:

The tax code is nowhere near the center of my intellectual life, and generally I find estate tax law about as exciting as Hegel's metaphysical theory of the identity of opposites. There is, however, more involved in this case than just the estate tax issue presented, which is how to determine the fair market value of the decedent's distinctly minority interest in CCC, a closely held corporation whose assets consist primarily of marketable securities with a built-in capital gains tax liability.

The broader principles implicated by the majority opinion are timeless. They were discussed by Teddy Roosevelt at the close of the century before last:

I wish to preach not the doctrine of ignoble ease but the doctrine of the strenuous life; the life of toil and effort; of labor and strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes not to the man who desires mere easy peace but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph.

Vice President Theodore Roosevelt, The Strenuous Life, Address before the Hamilton Club in Chicago, Illinois (April 10, 1899), in The Penguin Book of Twentieth-Century Speeches 1 (Brian MacArthur ed., 1992). By adopting and extending the arbitrary assumption rule of least effort from Estate of Dunn v. Commissioner, 301 F.3d 339 (5th Cir.2002), the majority gives in to the judicial equivalent of the doctrine of ignoble ease. To avoid the effort, labor, and toil that is required for a more accurate calculation of the estate tax due, the majority simply assumes a result that we all know is wrong. We can do better than that. The tax court did.

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Paul Stokes - November 23, 2007 9:40 AM

Judge Carne's ad hominem comments, although clever are not pertinent to the real issue. He is closer to the mark with this statement:

"While the real value approach is not perfect and itself makes some
assumptions "such as the past rate of liquidation continuing in the future" it produces a more accurate result than the arbitrary assumption method because it more closely reflects the economic interests of those who control the company."

I am not sure that the "real value approach" involves assumptions which, when taken together, necessarily produce a less arbitrary result. Judge Carnes is sure that it necessarily does, but would not reasonable men at least differ on this point? Is that not enough, then, to go for the sort of certainty that the majority finds so attractive? Given the complexity of the code both generally and in respect of valuation, my own opinion is a vote for certainty and so I applaud the majority in this case.

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