Taxpayers often enter into tax sharing agreements to agree on how the parties may allocate current or future tax liabilities or potential refund. Sometimes these agreements are heavily negotiated (e.g., a corporation acquiring a subsidiary of an unrelated party); sometime they are not (e.g., marital settlement agreements among individuals with little assets). A recent US Tax Court (Tax Court) opinion is a reminder that such agreements between private parties are not binding on the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in a tax proceeding.
In Asad v. Commissioner, the IRS disallowed certain deductions for rental-property losses claimed by the taxpayers on their joint returns for two years. The taxpayers, who had since divorced, both sought relief from joint and several liability under Internal Revenue Code (Code) Section 6015. In their divorce agreement, the taxpayers agreed that each would be liable for 50 percent of the tax liabilities for the two years. The IRS conceded that each taxpayer should be relieved of joint and several liability for a fraction of the liabilities (28 percent and 41 percent for the ex-wife and 72 percent and 59 percent for the ex-husband). At trial, the taxpayers argued that they should each be liable for 50 percent of the tax liabilities in accordance with the divorce agreement.
The Tax Court disagreed. It reasoned that although the divorce agreement established the taxpayers’ rights against each other under state law, it did not control their liabilities to the IRS. The court noted that case law, legislative committee reports, and reports issued by the Department of Treasury and the General Accounting Office have all observed that though divorce decrees may provide for an allocation of liabilities, such an allocation is not binding on creditors who do not participate in the divorce proceeding, and binding the IRS to such a divorce decree was impractical. Accordingly, in this case, though the taxpayers would have agreed to a 50/50 split on the tax liability, their divorce agreement did not alter their liabilities to the IRS.
Practice point: When negotiating agreement containing a sharing of tax liabilities, taxpayers should remember that such agreement is not binding on the IRS, which is not a party to that agreement. In the event one party is ultimately found liable for more than the amount or percentage dictated in an agreement, that party must seek contribution from the other party and cannot force the IRS to collect from the other party.