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The Charles Evans Gerber Transactional Studies Center


Ownership is one of the most fundamental concepts in tax law, yet it remains remarkably confused. The uncertainty inhibits tax planning, leads to inconsistent responses from the government, and produces unexpected outcomes in the courts. There has been no shortage of scholarly attention to the issue, but most of the commentary has been either exceedingly narrow or focused on far-reaching reforms. As a result, the law of tax ownership lacks conceptual foundation. This article attempts to remedy the deficiency by proposing a comprehensive approach to tax ownership and demonstrating that the doctrine may (and should) be significantly clarified without a dramatic overhaul of the existing substantive law. The approach rests on dividing all ownership questions into four categories depending on the context in which the questions arose. Using this analytical framework, the article allocates various tax ownership authorities to appropriate categories and develops the underlying principles guiding the analysis for each group. Because these principles differ among the categories, the article suggests that the existence of numerous seemingly inconsistent tax ownership decisions should be understood not as a sign of a confused doctrine, but as an appropriate result reflecting the underlying conceptual differences. By rationalizing and organizing the law of tax ownership, the article provides a framework for resolving future tax ownership controversies.