Supreme Court to Decide State Income Tax Case

The Supreme Court has granted certiorari in the appeal of the North Carolina Department of Revenue in North Carolina Department of Revenue v. Kimberley Rice Kaestner 1992 Family Trust, 814 S.E.2d 43 (N.C. 2018), No. 18-457 (U.S.S.C. 1/11/2018).

The North Carolina Supreme Court had held that the imposition of an income tax on the undistributed income of a New York trust merely because a beneficiary of the trust resided in North Carolina violated the due process clause of the U.S. Constitution. The trust was created by a New York resident under New York law, the trustee resided in Connecticut, the trust assets were marketable securities held by a custodian in Massachusetts, and the beneficiary who had moved to North Carolina after the trust was created had no power to withdraw any income or principal of the trust.

The “questions presented” (taken from the petition for cert.) is as follows:

More than $120 billion of our nation’s income flows through trusts. That income is a vital source of tax revenue for the states. Eleven states, including North Carolina, tax trust income when a trust’s beneficiaries are state residents.

For the last ninety years, however, this Court has been silent on whether these taxes comport with due process. The Court’s last words on the subject come from the Pennoyer era of due-process analysis. Pennoyer v. Neff, 95 U.S. 714 (1878). As a result, lower courts and state taxing authorities have been searching in vain for modern guidance.

There is now a direct split spanning nine states. Four state courts have held that the Due Process Clause allows states to tax trusts based on trust beneficiaries’ in-state residency. Five state courts, including two state supreme courts this year, have concluded that the Due Process Clause forbids these taxes.

The Due Process Clause should not have different meanings in different states particularly when billions of dollars of state-tax revenue hang in the balance. The question presented to this Court is:

Does the Due Process Clause prohibit states from taxing trusts based on trust beneficiaries’ in-state residency?

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