Wolens v. United States, 125 Fed. Cl. 422 (2016)
Facts: The parties married in New York, but divorced in England. Their English divorce decree provided for a large initial payment to be made by the husband to the wife, followed by annual payments of £441,667 in 2007, 2008, and 2009. (The 2009 payment was one pound less.)The husband’s initial tax return did not claim the 2007 payment as alimony. He later filed an amended return which did claim the 2007 payment as alimony. The IRS disallowed this return and refused to issue a refund.
The husband then filed suit in the Court of Federal Claims to obtain the refund. The IRS then moved to dismiss the action, arguing that the husband could not establish that the 2007 payment terminated upon death of the payee. The husband filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the payments clearly did terminate.
Issue: Was the 2007 payment alimony?
Answer to Issue: The answer depends upon material issues of fact; the motion to dismiss and motion for summary judgment are therefore denied.
Summary of Rationale: If the 2007 payment did not terminate upon death of the payee, it clearly could not be alimony for federal tax purposes. The agreement itself was silent on this point. The key question was therefore whether the payment automatically terminated at death under the controlling domestic relations law. “[A]lthough the government has shown that the term ‘lump sum’ is typically associated in the United Kingdom with a division of marital assets, it has not established that this is the only reasonable interpretation” of the agreement. 125 Fed. Cl. at 430. In particular, the annual payments might be construed together as a periodic obligation, instead of being construed separately as individual lump-sum obligations. The IRS’s motion to dismiss was therefore denied.
The husband’s motion for summary judgment was also denied, for essentially the same reason; the decree was ambiguous, and its construction was therefore an issue for trial. Continue reading →