If divorcing parties will file their income tax returns jointly, how do you allocate each party’s fair share of taxes? How do you draft an unambiguous provision that spells that out?
Such were among the questions raised by the July 18, 2018 decision of the Appellate Division, Second Department, in Cohen v. Cohen.
There, in October 2013, the parties entered into a settlement stipulation which was incorporated into their 2014 judgment of divorce. Article XIII, paragraph “1,” of the stipulation addressed the parties’ respective liability for their jointly-filed 2013 tax returns: any taxes due were to be “paid by the parties in proportion to their respective income.”
In January 2015, the husband moved to enforce the stipulation by seeking a determination of the wife’s proportionate liability for the parties’ jointly filed 2013 taxes and to direct the wife to pay that sum. In the order appealed from, Supreme Court Nassau County Justice Stacy D. Bennett granted the husband’s motion and determined that the wife was responsible for 11.3% of the parties’ tax liability for 2013, giving the parties credit for any payments already made.
On appeal, the Second Department held that the relevant provision was ambiguous as to how to calculate the parties’ respective income. The appellate court noted that whether an agreement is ambiguous is a question of law for the courts. Moreover, the Second Department held that the parties’ submissions to Justice Bennett were insufficient to resolve the ambiguity.