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BURLINGHAM v. CROUSE, 228 U.S. 459 (1913)

U.S. Supreme Court

BURLINGHAM v. CROUSE, 228 U.S. 459 (1913)

228 U.S. 459

CHARLES C. BURLINGHAM, Arthur R. Peck, and Albert W. Bonynge, as Trustees of the Property, Assets, and Effects of Thomas A. McIntyre et al., Individually and Composing the Firm of T. A. McIntyre & Company, Appts.,
No. 184.

Argued March 12 and 13, 1913.
Decided April 28, 1913.

[228 U.S. 459, 460]   Messrs. Dorr Raymond Cobb, Winfred T. Denison, and Irving L. Ernst for appellants.

[228 U.S. 459, 464]   Messrs. Levi S. Chapman, Harry E. Newell, and James E. Newell for appellee.

[228 U.S. 459, 465]  

Mr. Justice Day delivered the opinion of the court:

The action was brought in the United States district court for the southern district of New York by the trustees of the firm of T. A. McIntyre & Company, and of the individual members of that firm, bankrupts, against Charles M. Crouse and the Equitable Life Assurance Society of the United States, to recover the sum of $90,698.32, the net proceeds of certain policies of insurance issued by the Equitable Life Assurance Society upon the life of Thomas A. McIntyre, one of the bankrupts, deceased. The proceeds of the policies were paid into court by the Society. The judgment of the district court in favor of Crouse was affirmed by the circuit court of appeals (104 C. C. A. 227, 181 Fed. 479), and the case has been appealed to this court.

It appears that on the 10th of April, 1902, Thomas A. McIntyre obtained two policies of life insurance in the Equitable Society. They were known as 'guaranteed cash-value, limited payment, life policies,' each providing that upon the death of the insured the company would pay to his executors, administrators, or assigns the sum of [228 U.S. 459, 466]   $100,000 in fifty annual instalments, or the sum of $53,000 in cash, a total of $106,000 for the two policies. On April 14, 1906, the policies were assigned absolutely to the firm of T. A. McIntyre & Company, and on April 24, 1907, they were by that firm assigned to the Equitable Society as collateral security for a loan of $15,370. On February 25, 1908, two months prior to the filing of the petition in bankruptcy, the policies were assigned by McIntyre & Company to the defendant, Charles M. Crouse, subject, however, to the prior assignment to the Equitable Society. A petition in involuntary bankruptcy was filed against McIntyre & Company and its individual members on April 25, 1908, and on May 9, 1908, the defendant Crouse paid the premiums on the policies, in the sum of $6,078. 38. McIntyre & Company and the individual members thereof were adjudged involuntary bankrupts on May 21, 1908, and the trustees were elected on the 24th of July, 1908. On the 29th of July, 1908, Thomas A. McIntyre died, and the policies became payable.

It appears that the policies had a cash surrender value, which, at the time when the trustees qualified, was $15,370, or the amount of the loan of the Equitable Society upon the policies. It is therefore apparent that on the day when the petition was filed, as well as the day of the adjudication in bankruptcy, the cash surrender value would not have exceeded the loan and lien of the Society upon the policies. The circuit court of appeals for the second circuit held that, under the circumstances, the policies did not pass to the trustees as assets, and therefore the action which had been begun to set aside the transfer to Crouse, as a preference within the bankruptcy act, could not be maintained.

The correctness of this decision depends primarily upon the construction of 70a of the bankruptcy act, which reads: [228 U.S. 459, 467]   'The trustee of the estate of a bankrupt, upon his appointment and qualification, and his successor or successors if he shall have one or more, upon his or their appointment and qualification, shall in turn be vested by operation of law with the title of the bankrupt, as of the date he was adjudged a bankrupt, except in so far as it is to property which is exempt, to all (1) documents relating to his property; (2) interests in patents, patent rights, copyrights, and trademarks; (3) powers which he might have exercised for his own benefit, but not those which he might have exercised for some other person; (4) property transferred by him in fraud of his creditors; (5) property which, prior to the filing of the petition, he could by any means have transferred, or which might have been levied upon and sold under judicial process against him: Provided, that when any bankrupt shall have any insurance policy, which has a cash surrender value payable to himself, his estate, or personal representatives, he may, within thirty days after the cash surrender value has been ascertained and stated to the trustee by the company issuing the same, pay or secure to the trustee the sum so ascertained and stated, and continue to hold, own, and carry such policy free from the claims of the creditors participating in the distribution of his estate under the bankruptcy proceedings; otherwise the policy shall pass to the trustee as assets; and (6) lights of action arising upon contracts or from the unlawful taking or detention of, or injury to, his property.' [30 Stat. at L. 565, chap. 541, U. S. Comp. Stat. Supp. 1911, p. 1511.]

The part of the section particularly to be considered is subdiv. 5 and its proviso. Subdivision 5 undertakes to vest in the trustee property which, prior to the filing of the petition, the bankrupt could by any means have transferred, or which might have been levied upon or sold under judicial process against him. Then follows the proviso with reference to insurance policies which have a cash surrender value, permitting a bankrupt, when the cash [228 U.S. 459, 468]   surrender value has been ascertained and stated, to pay or secure such sum to the trustee, and to continue to hold, own, and carry the policies free from the claims of creditors; otherwise the policies to pass to the trustee as assets.

Two constructions have been given this section, and the question, as presented in this case, has not been the subject of direct determination in this court. The one favors the view that only policies having a cash surrender value are intended to pass to the trustee for the benefit of creditors The other, conceding that the proviso deals with this class of policies, maintains that policies of life insurance which have no surrender value pass to the trustee under the language of 70a immediately preceding the proviso, which reads: 'Property which, prior to the filing of the petition, he could by any means have transferred, or which might have been levied upon and sold under judicial process against him.'

To determine the congressional intent in this respect requires a brief consideration of the nature of the rights dealt with. Life insurance may be given in a contract providing simply for payment of premiums on a calculated basis which accumulates no surplus for the holder. Such insurance has no surrender value. Policies, whether payable at the end of a term of years or at death, may be issued upon a basis of calculation which accumulates a net reserve in favor of the policy holder, and which forms a consequent basis for the surrender of the policy by the insured, with advantage to the company upon the payment of a part of this accumulated reserve. This feature of surrender value was discussed by Judge Brown of the

Re Buelow, 98 Fed. 86; Re Josephson, 121 Fed. 142; Gould v. New York L. Ins. Co. 132 Fed. 927: Morris v. Dodd, 110 Ga. 606, 50 L.R.A. 33, 78 Am. St. Rep. 129, 36 S. E. 83.

Re Becker, 106 Fed. 54; Re Slingluff, 106 Fed. 154; Re Welling, 51 C. C. A. 151, 113 Fed. 189; Re Coleman, 69 C. C. A. 496, 136 Fed. 818; Re Hettling, 99 C. C. A. 87, 175 Fed. 65; Re Orear, 30 L.R.A.(N.S.) 990, 102 C. C. A. 78, 178 Fed. 632. [228 U.S. 459, 469]   southern district of New York, in Re McKinney, 15 Fed. 535, 537:

This case has been cited with approval in this court. Holden v. Stratton, 198 U.S. 202 , 49 L. ed. 1018, 25 Sup. Ct. Rep. 656; Hiscock v. Mertens, 205 U.S. 202 , 51 L. ed. 771, 27 Sup. Ct. Rep. 488. [228 U.S. 459, 470]   Under the bankruptcy act of 1867 [14 Stat. at L. 522, chap. 176, 14] no special provision was made for insurance policies. The section providing for the passing of the assets of the bankrupt to the trustee contained the broad language of 'all the estate, real and personal,' Under this statute it was held in Re McKinney, supra, that the insurance upon the life of the bankrupt vested in the bankrupt estate only to the extent of its cash surrender value at the time of the filing of the petition.

In Holden v. Stratton, supra, this court held that the law of the state of Washington, exempting the proceeds of life insurance policies, was applicable, and under the bankruptcy act of 1898, 6, the bankrupt might retain such policies. The circuit court of appeals for the ninth circuit, from which Holden v. Stratton came by certiorari to this court, had held that 70a was not controlled by the exemptions provided in 6 of the bankruptcy act, and had adhered to its former decision in Re Scheld, 52 L.R.A. 188, 44 C. C. A. 233, 104 Fed. 870, in which 70a had been construed to pass insurance policies having a cash surrender value to the trustee, unless the bankrupt paid or secured the surrender value, as pointed out in the section. While this court held that the exemption under the state law applied under the bankruptcy act to the policy in question, coming to deal with the construction of 70a, this court said (198 U. S. p. 213):

The section came again before this court in Hiscock v. Mertens, supra, and it was held that the insured was entitled to retain the policies upon the payment to the trustee of a sum equivalent to the amount the company was willing to pay according to its custom, although there was no stipulation in the policies as to a cash surrender value, and upon this subject the court said (p. 212):

And in that case it appeared that this sum was less than $6,000, whereas in a short time, some six months later, the maturity of one of the policies would give it a value of over $11,000. But this court held that this circumstance made no difference in the right of the insured to pay the surrender value and hold the policy.

True it is that life insurance policies are a species of property and might be held to pass under the general terms of subdiv. 5, 70a, but a proviso dealing with a class of this property was inserted and must be given its due weight in construing the statute. If is also true that a proviso may sometimes mean simply additional legisla- [228 U.S. 459, 472]   tion, and not be intended to have the usual and primary office of a proviso, which is to limit generalities and exclude from the scope of the statute that which would otherwise be within its terms.

This proviso deals with explicitness with the subject of life insurance held by the bankrupt which has a surrender value. Originally life insurance policies were contracts in consideration of annual sums paid as premiums for the payment of a fixed sum on the death of the insured. It is true that such contracts have been much varied in form since, and policies payable in a period of years, so as to become investments and means of money saving, are in common use. But most of these policies will be found to have either a stipulated surrender value or an established value, the amount of which the companies are willing to pay, and which brings the policy within the terms of the proviso (Hiscock v. Mertens, supra), and makes its present value available to the bankrupt estate. While life insurance is property, it is peculiar property. Legislatures of some of the states have provided that policies of insurance shall be exempt from liability for debt, and in many states provision is made for the protection from such liability of policies in favor of those dependent upon the insured. See Holden v. Stratton, supra.

Congress undoubtedly had the nature of insurance contracts in mind in passing 70a with its proviso. Ordinarily the keeping up of insurance of either class would require the payment of premiums perhaps for a number of years. For this purpose the estate might or might not have funds, or the payments might be so deferred as to unduly embarrass the settlement of the estate. Congress recognized also that many policies at the time of bankruptcy might have a very considerable present value which a bankrupt could realize by surrendering his policy to the company. We think it was this latter sum that the act intended to secure to creditors by requiring its pay- [228 U.S. 459, 473]   ment to the trustee as a condition of keeping the policy alive. In passing this statute Congress intended, while exacting this much, that when that sum was realized to the estate, the bankrupt should be permitted to retain the insurance which, because of advancing years or declining health, it might be impossible for him to replace. It is the twofold purpose of the bankruptcy act to convert the estate of the bankrupt into cash and distribute it among creditors, and then to give the bankrupt a fresh start with such exemptions and rights as the statute left untouched. In the light of this policy the act must be construed. We think it was the purpose of Congress to pass to the trustee that sum which was available to the bankrupt at the time of bankruptcy as a cash asset; otherwise to leave to the insured the benefit of his life insurance.

It should be observed, in this connection, that in the persent case the company had advanced upon the policies their full surrender value, as stipulated in the policies, and that the only interest that could have passed to the trustees would have been the speculative right to the net proceeds of the policies, contingent upon the death of the bankrupt, and possibly dependent upon the payment of large annual premiums for thirteen years.

It is urged, however, that under 70a, the cash surrender value was to be paid by the bankrupt when ascertained, and the policies kept alive for his benefit; and as these policies had been assigned by the beneficiary to McIntyre & Company, not as collateral, but absolutely, they would not come within the terms of the proviso, and therefore the proceeds of the policies vested in the bankrupt estate; but we find nothing in the act by which the right of the assignee of a policy to the benefits which would have accrued to the bankrupt is limited. As we have construed the statute, its purpose was to vest the surrender value in the trustee for the benefit of the creditors, and not otherwise to limit the bankrupt in dealing with his policy. [228 U.S. 459, 474]   As to the reimbursement of Crouse for the premiums advanced by him, and the application by him of the proceeds of the policies to particular items of indebtedness of the bankrupt estate in his favor,-upon the facts found we have no occasion to disturb the decree of the circuit court of appeals.

It results that the judgment of the Circuit Court of Appeals must be affirmed.

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