If the IRS determines that as between spouses only one is liable for a tax debt, should that finding be binding on a divorce court determination as to whether the marital tax debt should be allocated to only one spouse?

Married couples who choose to file a joint tax return are jointly and severally liable for the tax and any additions to tax, interest, or penalties that arise from the joint return, even if they later divorce. Joint and several liability means that each taxpayer is legally responsible for the entire liability. Thus, both spouses on a married filing jointly return are generally held responsible for all the tax due even if one spouse earned all the income or claimed improper deductions or credits. This is also true even if a divorce decree states that a former spouse will be responsible for any amounts due on previously filed joint returns.

In some cases, however, a spouse can get relief from being jointly and severally liable. Such “Innocent Spouse Relief” relieves a spouse from additional tax owed if based upon the other spouse’s failure to report income, improper reporting of income, or the claiming of improper deductions or credits.

In order to qualify for Innocent Spouse Relief:

  • The understatement of tax (deficiency) must be solely attributable to the other spouse’s erroneous item (omitted income, or incorrectly reported deductions, credits, or property basis);
  • The innocent spouse must establish that at the time the joint return was signed the spouse didn’t know, and had no reason to know, that there was an understatement of tax; and
  • taking into account all the facts and circumstances, it would be unfair to hold the innocent spouse liable for the understatement of tax.

Justice Catherine M. DiDomenico, in her August 29, 2017 Richmond County (Staten Island) Supreme Court opinion in S.M. v. M.R. (the subject of last week’s blog post on the effect of an attorney retainer agreement cap), appeared to hold that a Tax Court innocent spouse finding should, conclusively, result in the equitable distribution of the entire tax debt to the other spouse.


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If you were fortunate enough to buy stock in Apple Inc. in early 2009, you might have paid $13 per share. It’s now worth $150.

If you’re getting a divorce holding Apple shares with a substantially lower-than-market cost basis, you must plan your trial evidence or settlement to deal with the embedded capital gains tax exposure. In the example above, the gain would be $137 per share. When sold, under current tax laws, a capital gains tax of perhaps tens of thousands of dollars or more could be incurred.

If you settle this issue, you may negotiate the impact of capital gains on the spouse retaining the shares. It will always be easier, fairer, to simply divide the shares, but care must be taken to divide it “traunch” by traunch; to divide each group of shares purchased at any one time. In that way, the spouses will be assured that not only will today’s fair market value be the same, but so will the embedded capital gains issue.

If you don’t settle, the issue will be far more difficult. The court may not recognize nor account for the potential tax liability incurred if and when the stock as sold. The transfer from one spouse to the other incident to the divorce itself is not viewed as a taxable event. Even if the court computes the transfer using the current fair market value, the transferring spouse reports no capital gains; the recipient spouse keeps the original cost basis. If and when the recipient sells the shares, the recipient will bear the entirety of the capital gains tax, computed on the gain over the original cost basis.


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New York’s Domestic Relations Law §25, enacted in 1907, provides that a marriage is valid, even in the absence of a marriage license, if it was properly solemnized. However, New York County Supreme Court Justice Matthew F. Cooper, in his May 29, 2014 decision in Ponorovskaya v. Stecklow held that D.R.L. §25 could not be used to validate a marriage ceremony that failed to meet the  legal requirements of Mexico where the ceremony was performed. While so holding, Justice Cooper called for the statute to be amended or repealed, and joined the debate on whether Universal Life Church “ministers” could “properly solemnize” marriages.

Justice Cooper’s recitation of the facts merits quotation:

[Ms. Ponorovskaya], who is a clothing designer and business owner in Manhattan, and [Mr. Stecklow], a lawyer, began their relationship in 2004. While in Mexico for a 2009 New Year’s celebration, [Mr. Stecklow] proposed to [Ms. Ponorovskaya] overlooking the Mayan ruins in Tulum. The parties subsequently planned a Mexican destination wedding at the Dreams Tulum Resort & Spa. . . . On February 18th, the couple had a wedding ceremony on the resort’s beach. The ceremony was performed under a chuppah, a canopy under which a couple stands during a Jewish wedding. Certain Hebrew prayers were recited, vows were exchanged, and there was a glass-breaking ritual, as is customary at Jewish weddings.

Despite these traditions, the ceremony was not performed by a rabbi. Instead it was conducted by [Mr. Stecklow]’s cousin, Dr. Keith Arbeitman, a dentist who lives in New York. In 2003, in order to perform a marriage for friends, he became an ordained minister of the Universal Life Church (“ULC”), a distinction easily achieved by paying a fee on the ULC’s website. . . . [A]t oral argument on the motion, [Ms. Ponorovskaya]’s counsel produced a certificate that he printed off the internet certifying that Dr. Arbeitman is indeed a minister in good standing with the ULC. Likewise, during the ceremony Dr. Arbeitman told the audience, “I am an ordained minister — this will be a legal union.”


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Filing income tax returns as “single” for the 11 years before a decedent’s death, did not, as a matter of law, estop a woman from claiming to be the decedent’s surviving spouse in contested estate proceedings. So held New York County Surrogate Nora S. Anderson in the May 22, 2014 decision in Estate of Tran (pdf).

Sang Kim Nguyen filed a petition to be appointed Administratrix of the Estate of Truong Dinh Tran. Ms. Nguyen claimed to be Mr. Truong’s widow under the common law of Vietnam. Separate cross-petitions for appointment were filed Mr. Truong’s alleged son, duaghter’s and grandson, who all sought summary dismissal of Ms. Nguyen’s petition.

Mr. Truong died at the age of 80 on May 6, 2012, leaving an estate that has been estimated to be worth more than $100 million.

According to Wikipedia, Truong was the principal owner of the Vishipco Line, the largest shipping company in South Vietnam in the 1970s. As a shipowner, he earned millions of dollars hauling cargo for the United States military. Truong left Vietnam on April 30, 1975, the day that Saigon fell to the communists. Truong boarded one of his eleven ships and traveled to the United States with two suitcases of gold.


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The IRS is enhancing processes to address the discrepancies between the deductions taken by alimony payers and the income reported by alimony recipients. This is in response to a report of the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration issued March 31, 2014 (TIGTA #2014-40-022).

Alimony is a payment to or for the benefit

It is certainly not a rare problem. When confronted with fraudulent income tax returns, what is a divorce court to do? Should they be used as swords or shields?

In her January 31, 2014 decision in Morille-Hinds v. Hinds, Supreme Court Queens County Justice Pam Jackman Brown appears to have disregarded the failure to report a husband’s income on the parties’ joint income tax returns when recognizing his claim to a 50% share of marital property. Nevertheless, those returns were honored when fixing the wife’s entitlement to child support.

The parties, both 54, married in 1993. The wife had commenced this divorce action in 2007. The husband had appealed from the 2009 decision of Judicial Hearing Officer Stanley Gartenstein who had awarded him only 15% of the marital property. The J.H.O. had also imputed to the husband an annual income of $80,000 for the purpose of determining his child support obligation. The Second Department reversed, holding that decision was patently unfair to the husband. The case was sent back for a retrial on the issues of equitable distribution and child support.


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1040.jpgThe Appellate Division, Second Department, has again told J.H.O. Stanley Gartenstein that it was improper for him to award nontaxable spousal maintenance.

In Siskind v. Siskind, in addition to awarding the wife $65,000 per year in nontaxable maintenance until the wife reached her 65th birthday, J.H.O. Gartenstein equitably distributed the parties’ assets, awarded child support and a $340,000 counsel fee, and secured the husband’s support obligations with a $4 million life insurance policy (reduced on appeal to $3 million).

In its November, 2011 modification of that award, the Second Department recognized the presumption that spousal maintenance should be taxable income to the recipient spouse, and deductible to the payor. The appellate court stated:

. . . there was insufficient evidence justifying the Supreme Court’s direction that maintenance be nontaxable to the plaintiff, which is “a departure from the norm envisioned by current Internal Revenue Code provisions.”

In 2007, in Grumet v. Grumet, the Second Department had modified J.H.O. Gartenstein’s award to the wife of non-taxable maintenance, declaring that in the absence of a stated rationale for a departure from the norm envisioned by the Internal Revenue Code provisions, a maintenance award should be taxable.

Maintenance is appropriately taxable income to the recipient. Baron v. Baron (2nd Dept. 2010), Markopulous v. Markopulos, 274 A.D.2d 457, 710 N.Y.S.2d 636 (2nd Dept. 2000) ; see also Taverna v. Taverna (2008), where the Second Department modified the trial court award by making maintenance taxable. Such may have been the holding because the trial court properly declined to consider the husband’s tax liabilities resulting from the liquidation and distribution of investment accounts incident to equitable distribution, as the husband had failed to offer any competent evidence concerning the liabilities which would be incurred. See Fleishmann v. Fleischmann (2010 Supreme Westchester Co., Lubell, J.)


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square peg1.jpgEntering open-court oral stipulations of settlement to a divorce action is treacherous.  It’s easy to miss something or be imprecise in language.

However, striking the deal while the iron is hot is a necessary part of matrimonial litigation.  Letting the parties walk out of the courthouse without putting the day’s agreement “on the record” may cost the parties their deal.  Emotions, particularly in divorce cases, often cause second (and hundredth) thoughts on settlement provisions.  Giving friends and family one more opportunity for input may likely undermine the day’s efforts.

However, there are reasons that the typical written settlement stipulation consumes scores of pages. The boilerplate and legalese so offensive to the public is the necessary consequence of the thousands of decisions which interpret the words found in or missing from decades of previous settlements or otherwise requiring attention in any final agreement.  Moreover, without reflecting on the written word, it’s easy just to miss things.

Take the recent Second Department decision in Zuchowski v. Zuchowski.  The parties’ oral in-court stipulation announced that “all joint bank accounts have been split to the mutual satisfaction of the parties and here and forward each party shall keep any bank accounts in their respective names . . .”


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