A recent Tax Court decision was reported dealing with tax litigation and legal fees for alimony payments. J. Frank Best, Certified Public Accountant and United States Tax Court Litigator works to stay current on all IRS decisions concerning tax litigation to ensure we are fully informed and prepared for our clients.
Legal Fees to Recoup Alimony Payments Were Nondeductible Personal Expenses
The Tax Court held that a taxpayer could not deduct legal fees incurred in an action to recover alimony payments that he alleged were made in excess of the amount provided for under a separation agreement with his ex-wife. The Tax Court found that the legal fees were nondeductible personal expenses because the underlying claim did not originate from any profit seeking activity. Barry v. Comm’r, T.C. Memo. 2017-237.
William and Beth Barry were divorced in 2002. The judgment of dissolution ordered Mr. Barry to pay alimony of $2,400 per month. In 2011, Mr. Barry sued Ms. Barry for breach of contract. He alleged that under a separation agreement they had previously signed, Ms. Barry was entitled to total alimony of approximately $45,000 and that he had paid that amount in full. He said that Ms. Barry was in default of the separation agreement when she filed for divorce in 2000 and demanded alimony. Mr. Barry sought a judgment of approximately $201,000 – an amount equal to the excess of the total alimony he paid over the amount he claimed Ms. Barry was entitled to under the separation agreement. Mr. Barry’s lawsuit was dismissed in 2011 as time barred.
On his 2013 tax return, Mr. Barry claimed a deduction of over $34,000 for the legal fees he paid with respect to the action against Ms. Barry. The IRS determined a deficiency of approximately $5,000 and an accuracy-related penalty of $1,000. Mr. Barry petitioned the Tax Court for redetermination of the deficiency.
Personal and family expenses are generally not deductible. However, a deduction is allowed under Code Sec. 212 for ordinary and necessary expenses for (1) the production or collection of income, or (2) the maintenance or conservation of property held for the production of income. In U.S. v. Gilmore, 372 U. S 39 (1963), the Supreme Court held that legal fees incurred by a taxpayer in resisting his wife’s property claims in a divorce were not deductible because the claims that gave rise to the fees stemmed from the marital relationship rather than from any profit seeking activity. The Supreme Court stated that the origin of the claim with respect to which an expense was incurred, rather than its potential consequences, is the controlling test of whether an expense is deductible.
Barry argued that Gilmore was decided based on the language of Code Sec. 212(2), which applies to expenses incurred in the conservation of property held for the production of income, but that his his claim was based on Code Sec. 212(1), which allows a deduction for expenses paid for the production of income. Barry said that the origin of the claim test therefore did not apply. Barry also cited Wild v. Comm’r, 42 T.C. 706 (1964), where the Tax Court held that legal fees paid by a wife in obtaining alimony includible in gross income were deductible under Code Sec. 212(1). Barry argued that his legal expenses should also be deductible because they were incurred for the purpose of collecting money that would be included in his income under the tax benefit rule.
The Tax Court held that Barry’s legal fees were not deductible under Code Sec 212(1). First, it found that, contrary to Barry’s argument, the Gilmore origin of the claim test applied to both paragraphs (1) and (2) of Code Sec.212. According to the Tax Court, Gilmore interpreted the predecessor statute to Code Sec.212, which contained in one paragraph the provisions now codified in Code Sec. 212(1) and Code Sec.212(2). The Tax Court also cited language from the Gilmore opinion stating that the only kind of expenses deductible under the predecessor to Code Sec. 212 were those that related to a profit seeking purpose and did not include personal, living, or family expenses.
Next, the Tax Court cited several of its previous decisions applying the origin of the claim test to deductions for legal fees under Code Sec. 212(1). The Tax Court noted that in Sunderland v. Comm’r, T.C. Memo. 1977-116, it applied the Gilmore test to disallow a deduction claimed under Code Sec.212(1) for legal expenses the taxpayer incurred in a legal action which resulted in a reduction of the alimony paid to his former wife. The Tax Court also cited Favrot v. U.S., 550 F.Supp. 809 (E.D. La. 1982), where a district court applied Gilmore in disallowing a claimed deduction for legal expenses incurred in an attempt to recoup alimony payments. The Tax Court rejected Barry’s assertion that his legal fees should be deductible because any recovered alimony payments would have been includible in his income. In the Tax Court’s view, Barry improperly focused on the potential consequences of his lawsuit rather than on the origin and character of his claim.
The Tax Court also disagreed with Barry’s reading of its decision in Wild, finding that it turned on an exception to the Gilmore rule in the regulations under Code Sec. 262 specifically providing for the deductibility of legal fees of a wife incurred for the collection of alimony and similar amounts received by a wife in connection with a marital relationship. The Tax Court concluded by citing the general rule as stated in the regulations under Code Sec. 262, which is that attorney’s fees and other costs paid in connection with a divorce, separation, or decree for support are not deductible by either the husband or the wife.
Finally, the Tax Court reasoned that if Barry had filed suit in the same year as his divorce to challenge the alimony obligations, his legal expenses would have been nondeductible personal expenses. In seeking to deduct legal expenses incurred in an action to recoup the alimony payments, Barry was seeking to do indirectly what could not have been done directly, according to the Tax Court.