National Safe Deposit Company v. Stead
By the act of July 1, 1909, the Illinois legislature passed an inheritance tax law like that considered in Magoun v. Illinois Trust & Sav. Bank, 170 U.S. 283, 42 L. ed. 1037, 18 Sup. Ct. Rep. 594. The 9th section of the statute provides in substance:
That no safe deposit company, corporation, or person having in possession or under control securities or assets belonging to or standing in the name of a decedent, or in the joint name of the decedent and another person, or in the name of a partnership of which he was a member, shall deliver such assets to the legal representative of the deceased or to the survivor of the joint holders, or to the partnership of which he was a member, without ten days' notice to the attorney general and treasurer of the state, who were authorized to examine the securities at the time of the delivery. It was further provided that no delivery should be made unless such holder should retain a sufficient portion of the assets to pay the state tax thereafter assessed, unless such state officers gave consent in writing. Failure to give the notice or to retain such amount rendered the deposit company, corporation, or person liable for the tax and to a penalty of $1,000.
On March 15, 1910, the National Safe Deposit Company filed in the circuit court of Cook county, Illinois, a bill against the treasurer and attorney general, alleging that the company was incorporated in 1881 to do a safe deposit business, and that, in pursuance of its charter, it had erected a building with large vaults into which 13,291 safe deposit boxes had been built and 9,702 rented,-317 to partnerships and 4,104 were held jointly by more than one person. That prior to July 1, 1909, it had made yearly contracts for the rental of said boxes, most of which were still of force. The rent contracts recited that in consideration of $_____ paid, the company 'had rented to _____ safe No. ___ in the vaults of this company for the term of one year,' and that its liability was limited to the exercise of ordinary diligence in preventing the opening of the safe by any person other than the renter or his duly authorized representative. 'No one except the renter, or his deputy, to be designated in writing on the books of the company, or, in case of death, his legal representative, to have access to the safe' . . . No renter will be permitted to enter the vaults except in the presence of the vault keeper. In case of loss of key or combination the lock will be changed at the expense of the renter. . . .
The bill alleged that the safes could be opened only by two keys, or two combinations, one of which keys or combinations was held by or known only to the renter, the other being held or known only by the company's agents. So that it required the joint act of the customer and the company to secure access to the contents,-the company having no right or means of access to the box itself, nor did it possess any knowledge or information as to the ownership of the securities deposited therein.
The bill further alleged that, notwithstanding these facts, the defendants insisted that the Deposit Company had such possession or control of the contents as to make it incumbent upon it to prevent access thereto by all persons for ten days after the death of the sole or joint renter; that this deprived the Deposit Company of the right to do the business for which it had been chartered, made it break its contract that it would allow no one except the renter or his agent or representative to have access to the boxes; interfered with its business by depriving the representative and survivor of their right to use the box and contents; imposed upon the Deposit Company the risk of determining who was the owner of the contents of the box, and imposed the duty of acting as a tax-collecting agent for the state. The bill also alleged that the company had been threatened with suits by depositors if it yielded to the command of such void act. In order to prevent a multiplicity of suits, and to avoid the heavy statutory penalties, the company prayed that the defendants be enjoined from enforcing the statute against it.
The defendants' demurrer was sustained. That ruling was affirmed by the supreme court of Illinois, three judges dissenting (250 Ill. 584, 95 N. E. 973, Ann. Cas. 1912 B, 430). The case was then brought here by writ of error.
Messrs. George Packard, John S. miller, and Merritt Starr for plaintiff in error.
[Argument of Counsel from pages 61-64 intentionally omitted]
Messrs. Patrick J. Lucey and Lester H. Strawn for defendants in error.
Statement by Mr. Justice Lamar:
[Argument of Counsel from pages 64-66 intentionally omitted]
Mr. Justice Lamar, after making the foregoing statement of facts, delivered the opinion of the court: