Begier v. IRS
496 U.S. 53 (1990)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Begier v. IRS, 496 U.S. 53 (1990)

Begier v. Internal Revenue Service

No. 89-393

Argued March 27, 1990

Decided June 4, 1990

496 U.S. 53

Syllabus

The Internal Revenue Code directs "every person receiving any payment for facilities or services" subject to excise taxes to "collect the amount of the tax from the person making such payment." 26 U.S.C. § 4291. It also requires an employer to "collect" Federal Insurance Contributions Act taxes from its employees "by deducting the amount of the tax from the wages as and when paid," § 3102(a), and to "deduct and withhold upon such wages [the employee's federal income tax]," § 3402(a)(1). The amount of taxes "collected or withheld" is "held to be in a special fund in trust for the United States." § 7501. Thus, these taxes are often called "trust-fund taxes." After American International Airlines, Inc., fell behind in its trust-fund tax payments, the Internal Revenue Service, pursuant to § 7512, ordered it to deposit all future taxes collected into a separate bank account. AIA established the account, but did not deposit funds sufficient to cover the entire amount of its obligations. Nonetheless, it remained current on the obligations, paying part of them from the separate bank account and part from its general operating funds. In a subsequent liquidation proceeding under the Bankruptcy Code, petitioner Begier was appointed AIA's trustee. Seeking to exercise his power under § 547(b) of the Bankruptcy Code -- which permits a trustee to avoid certain preferential payments made before the debtor files for bankruptcy -- Begier filed an adversary action against the Government to recover the entire amount that AIA had paid the IRS for trust-fund taxes during the 90 days before the bankruptcy filing. The Bankruptcy Court refused to permit Begier to recover any of the money AIA had paid out of the separate account on the ground that AIA had held that money in trust for the IRS. However, it allowed him to avoid most of the payments made out of AIA's general accounts, holding that such funds were property of the debtor. The District Court affirmed, but the Court of Appeals reversed, holding that any pre-petition payment of trust-fund taxes is a payment of funds that are not the debtor's property, and that such a payment is therefore not an avoidable preference.

Page 496 U. S. 54

Held: AIA's trust-fund tax payments from its general accounts were transfers of property held in trust, and therefore cannot be avoided as preferences. Pp. 496 U. S. 58-67.

(a) Equality of distribution among creditors is a central policy of the Bankruptcy Code that is furthered by § 547(b) to the extent that it permits a trustee to avoid pre-petition preferential transfers of "property of the debtor." Although not defined by the Code, "property of the debtor" is best understood to mean property that would have been part of the estate had it not been transferred. Its meaning is coextensive with its post-petition analog "property of the estate," which includes all of the debtor's legal or equitable interests in property as of the commencement of the case. § 541(a)(1). Since a debtor does not own an equitable interest in property he holds in trust for another, that interest is not "property of the estate" and, likewise, not "property of the debtor." Pp. 496 U. S. 58-59.

(b) AIA created a trust within the meaning of 26 U.S.C. § 7501 at the moment the money was withheld or collected. The statutory trust extends to the amount of tax "collected or withheld," and the language of §§ 4291, 3102(a), and 3402(a)(1) makes clear that the acts of collecting and withholding occur at the time of payment -- the recipient's payment for the service in the case of excise taxes and the employer's payment of wages in the case of FICA and income taxes. The fact that AIA neither put the taxes in a segregated fund nor paid them to the IRS does not somehow mean that AIA never collected or withheld them in the first place. Mandating segregation as a prerequisite to the creation of a trust under § 7501 would make § 7512's requirement that funds may be segregated in special and limited circumstances superfluous and, would mean that an employer could avoid the creation of a trust simply by refusing to segregate. Pp. 496 U. S. 60-62.

(c) The funds transferred from AIA's general accounts were trust assets. Neither § 7501 nor common law rules for tracing trust res offer guidance on how to determine whether the assets were trust property. And the strict rule of United States v. Randall,401 U. S. 513 -- which prohibited the IRS from recovering withheld taxes ahead of the bankruptcy proceeding's administrative expenses -- did not survive the 1978 restructuring of the Bankruptcy Code. The 1978 Code's legislative history shows that Congress intended that the courts permit the use of "reasonable assumptions" under which the IRS could demonstrate that amounts of withheld taxes were still in the debtor's possession at the time the petition was filed. Thus, Congress expected that the IRS would have to show some connection between the trust and the assets sought to be applied to a debtor's trust fund obligations. While the Bankruptcy Code does not demonstrate how extensive this nexus must

Page 496 U. S. 55

be, the legislative history identifies one reasonable assumption: that any voluntary pre-petition payment of trust fund taxes out of the debtor's assets is not a transfer of the debtor's property. Other rules might be reasonable, but the only evidence presented suggests that Congress preferred this one. Pp. 496 U. S. 62-67.

878 F.2d 762 (CA3 1989), affirmed.

MARSHALL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and BRENNAN, WHITE, BLACKMUN, STEVENS, O'CONNOR, and KENNEDY, JJ., joined. SCALIA, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 496 U. S. 67.

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