A Bundle of Confusion for the Income Tax: What It Means to Own Something

McMahon, Stephanie Hunter | March 1, 2014

Conceptions of property exist on a spectrum between the Blackstonian absolute dominion over an object to a bundle of rights and obligations that recognizes, if not encourages, the splitting of property interests among different people. The development of the bundle of rights conception of property occurred in roughly the same era as the enactment of the modern federal income tax. Nevertheless, when Congress enacted the tax in 1913, it did not consider how the nuances of property, and the possible splitting of the property interests in an income-producing item, might affect application of the tax. Soon after the tax’s enactment, the Treasury Department and the courts were confronted with questions of who owned, and could be taxed on, what income. As shown by an examination of family partnerships and synthetic leases, the government continues to struggle with determining who owns a sufficient property interest to be taxed because Congress has yet to define ownership for tax purposes.