Taylor v. United States

Citation324 Mass. 639,88 N.E.2d 121
Decision Date28 September 1949
CourtUnited States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts


Petition by Amos L. Taylor, executor of the will of Jesse P. Lyman, praying that the estate be determined to be solvent, and that either the report of Commissioners In Insolvency which purported to deal with claims, be disallowed in its entirety, or that all unsatisfied claims on which no action was seasonably brought be disallowed, opposed by the United States.

The Probate Court, Poland, J., entered a declaring the estate solvent and allowed the claim of the United States for income taxes in a reduced sum and the United States appealed.

The Supreme Judicial Court, Qua, C. J., held that the claim of the United States for income tax of 1930, was not barred by the one year statute of limitations and struck out that part of the decree which reduced the amount allowed on the claim of the United States.


W. Noyes, Boston, S. B. Anderson and A. L. Taylor, Jr., Boston, with him for petitioner.

F. G. Rita, Spec. Asst. to the Atty. Gen., W. A. Garrity, Jr., Asst. U. S. Attorney, Boston, with him, for respondent.

QUA, Chief Justice.

This petition was addressed to the Probate Court by the surviving executor of the will of Jesse P. Lyman, who prays that the estate, for which commissioners in insolvency had previously been appointed, be now determined to be solvent, and that either the report of the commissioners purporting to deal with claims be disallowed in its entirety, or that all unsatisfied claims on which no action was seasonably brought be disallowed.

Among the claims which the commissioners allowed was a claim of the United States in the sum of $67,868.59 for income taxes of the years 1930 and 1931. On the present petition, the Probate Court entered a decree declaring the estate solvent, disallowing the claims of certain creditors, and also disallowing the claim of the United States, in so far as it related to the tax of 1930, on the ground that the claim for that tax was barred by the short statute of limitation, G.L.(Ter.Ed.) c. 197, § 9. See now said section as amended by St.1933, c. 221, § 4. The claim of the United States was accordingly allowed by the court in the reduced sum of $35,878.23. Only the United States, appeals. For previous litigation in connection with this estate and with the claim of the United States for taxes see Jose v. Lyman, 316 Mass. 271, 55 N.E.2d 433, 154 A.L.R. 190;United States v. Lyman, 1 Cir., 125 F.2d 67; and Lyman v. United States, 1 Cir., 138 F.2d 509.

The pertinent facts relative to the claim of the United States for the tax of 1930 appear from a report of facts by the judge which was obviously intended to be a complete report of the material facts. The amount claimed for the tax of 1930 was assessed against Jesse P. Lyman May 25, 1931. He died September 14, 1931. His executors were appointed and qualified October 6, 1931. They gave due notice of their appointment and filed an affidavit of that notice. It follows that if the short statute of limitation is applicable the executors cannot be ‘held to answer to an action by a creditor of the deceased which [was] not commenced’ by October 6, 1932. G.L.(Ter.Ed.) c. 197, § 9. No action was commenced by the United States before or on that date. The executors filed a representation of probable insolvency on January4, 1933. On March 31, 1933, the court appointed commissioners ‘to receive and examine all claims of creditors' against the estate. G.L.(Ter.Ed.) c. 198, § 2. The United States filed its claim with the commissioners ‘some time after their appointment.’ They returned their report, allowing the claim for the tax of 1930, on January 3, 1934. As the result of the former litigation ending in a compromise the estate is now solvent.

1. We think it plain that the claim of the United States for the tax of 1930 could not properly be disallowed on the bare ground that it was barred by the one year statute of limitation. We consider it settled that a claim of the United States is not barred, even in a State court, by a State statute of limitation or by the laches of officers or agents of the United States. Davis v. Corona Coal Co., 265 U.S. 219, 44 S.Ct. 552, 68 L.Ed. 987;United States v. Summerlin, 310 U.S. 414, 416, 60 S.Ct. 1019, 84 L.Ed. 1283;United States v. Commissioner of Banks, 254 Mass. 173, 175-176, 149 N.E. 883;City of Boston v. Nielsen, 305 Mass. 429, 430, 26 N.E.2d 366. It appears to us that the pertinent statute of limitation is to be found in what is now U.S.C. (1946 ed.) Title 26, § 276(c), 26 U.S.C.A. § 276(c), which provides that where the assessment of any Federal income tax has been made within the period of limitation properly applicable thereto, ‘such tax may be collected by distraint or by a proceeding in court, but only if gegun (1) within six years after the assessment of the tax * * *.’ The claim of the United States must necessarily have been presented to the commissioners before they returned their report allowing it on January 3, 1934, and was therefore presented within six years after the assessment made in 1931. And the presentation of a claim to a State Probate Court for allowance has been held in all cases which have come to our attention to be ‘a proceeding in court within § 276(c). United States v. Ettelson, 8 Cir., 159 F.2d 193;United States v. Paisley, D.C., 26 F.Supp. 237;United States v. First National Bank, D.C., 54 F.Supp. 351. Compare Berrymont Land Co. v. Davis Creek Land & Coal Co., 110 W.Va. 305, 310, 158 S.E. 651.

2. The executor, however, although conceding that, in general, the United States as a body politic can pursue its claims in State courts, Cotton v. United States, 11 How. 229, 13 L.Ed. 675;Claflin v. Houseman, 93 U.S. 130, 23 L.Ed. 833;Testa v. Katt, 330 U.S. 386, 67 S.Ct. 810, 91 L.Ed. 967, 172 A.L.R. 225, contends that the effect of the short statute of limitation was to deprive the Probate Court of jurisdiction over any claim against which that statute had run, and that since the State fixes the jurisdiction of its own courts and cannot be required to hold them open solely for claims of the United States of a kind which would otherwise be beyond their jurisdiction, the Probate Court and the commissioners appointed by it had no jurisdiction over the claim in question. See United States v. Summerlin, 310 U.S. 414, 60 S.Ct. 1019, 84 L.Ed. 1283;Schaffer v. Leimberg, 318 Mass. 396, 404, 62 N.E.2d 193. We cannot adopt this contention. The short statute of limitation does not impose a jurisdictional bar. Failure to observe its requirements is merely an error in the conduct of the case, as would be failure to enforce other applicable defences. Such failure does not render the decision void, as it would be if the court had no jurisdiction over the subject matter. See Hendrick v. Whittemore, 105 Mass. 23, 27. This statute is not limited to insolvent estates. It finds its principal use in courts of general jurisdiction over the litigation of claims. It cannot be supposed that the judgments in all cases in which errors have been made in not applying statutes of limitation are void and of no effect for want of jurisdiction. This is settled by Castaline v. Swardlick, 264 Mass. 481, 163 N.E. 62. This principle applies to the short statute of limitation as well as to other statutes of limitation. There are some intimations tending to that effect in our decisions. Brown v. Anderson, 13 Mass. 201, 203;Dawes v. Shed, 15 Mass. 6, 8 Am.Dec. 80;Lamson v. Schutt, 4 Allen, 359, 360.Robinson v. Hodge, 117 Mass. 222, 225. The last sentence of G.L. (Ter.Ed.) c. 198, § 2, reading, ‘All debts of the estate of said deceased not at the time of such finding [of probable insolvency] barred by any statute of limitations may be allowed either by said commissioners or by said court, was intended only to indicate beyond doubt that statutes of limitation barred claims against insolvent estates as against other estates. It could not have been intended to render the limitation jurisdictional where the claim is presented to the Probate Court or to commissioners of that court, when it would not be jurisdictional if the same claim were tried out in the Superior Court according to § 31. Moreover, the first sentence of § 2 provides that the commissioners are to ‘receive and examine all claims of creditors against such estate, and to return a list of all claims presented to them’ (emphasis supplied). This sentence determines the jurisdiction of the commissioners rather than the second sentence which contains the reference to statutes of limitation. Our conclusion finds support in United States v. Hoar, 26 Fed.Cas.No.15, 373, 2 Mason, 311;United States v. Embrey, 145 Fla. 277, 199 So. 41;In re Morse's Estate, 137 Me. 302, 305-306, 19 A.2d 247, and Commerce Union Bank v. Gillespie, 178 Tenn. 179, 194-195, 156 S.W.2d 425. The case of In re estate of Paulson, 208 Minn. 231, 233-234, 293 N.W. 607, was decided against a different statutory background, and the court there said that the State statute ‘probably does not affect claims in favor of government, state or national.’ 208 Minn. at page 234, 293 N.W. at page 609. The case of First Portland National Bank v. Taylor, 323 Mass. 492, 496, 83 N.E.2d 161, is not contrary to what is here decided.

3. The executor makes the more far reaching contention that because of the wording and the history of U.S.C. (1946 ed.) Title 26, §§ 3744 and 3745(c), 26 U.S.C.A. §§ 3744, 3745(c), a suit to recover taxes, as distinguished from ‘fines, penalties, and forfeitures,’ must at all times material to this case have been brought in a District Court of the United States and could not be brought in a State court.1 There would seem to be some plausibility in this contention, although the only statement we have seen purporting to touch directly upon the point is a...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT