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Coggin v. United States

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

July 17, 2018

ALICE J. COGGIN, Plaintiff,



         Alice Coggin filed suit seeking a refund of allegedly overpaid federal income taxes for tax years 2001 through 2007. The undisputed facts establish that Ms. Coggin intended to file joint tax returns for the 2002 through 2007 tax years with her husband and that the joint tax returns for those years, filed in 2009 and 2010, were valid. Because a spouse cannot revoke a valid joint return in order to pay a lesser amount pursuant to a separate return filed years later, the defendant is entitled to summary judgment on the claims arising out of those tax years. Ms. Coggin concedes that she is not entitled to a refund for the 2001 tax year and the Court also will grant summary judgment to the defendant on that claim.

         I. Background

         Alice and Phil Coggin were married until his death in 2011. Mr. Coggin was responsible for family financial matters. On November 25, 2009, Mr. Coggin filed married-filing-jointly tax returns for the 2001 through 2006 tax years on behalf of himself and Ms. Coggin. See Doc. 47-8 (2002-2006 returns); Doc. 47-7 (2001-2006 payment). On August 24, 2010, Mr. Coggin filed a joint tax return for the 2007 tax year. Doc. 47-9. Mr. Coggin signed Ms. Coggin's signatures on the 2002 through 2007 joint tax returns without her knowledge or consent. See, e.g., Doc. 50-2 at 56-57; Doc. 47-2 at 29; Doc. 47-9. Mr. Coggin paid taxes in connection with the filing of the 2001 through 2007 tax returns. Doc. 47-7.[1]

         After his death, Ms. Coggin learned that he had signed her name on the 2001 through 2007 joint returns. She thereafter filed married-filing-separately returns for those years and sought a refund of part of the 2001 through 2007 taxes that Mr. Coggin paid.

         Additional undisputed facts will be stated as needed to evaluate the issues.

         II. Tax Years 2002-2006 A. Overview of Claim

         In a refund suit, the plaintiff must show that (1) an outstanding tax obligation was paid in full; (2) the amount of the tax obligation that the IRS assessed is incorrect and the correct amount of the tax; (3) she submitted a timely administrative refund claim; and (4) she filed a timely court action for refund. See generally Flora v. United States, 362 U.S. 145, 177 (1960) (finding that full payment of the tax was a prerequisite to a refund suit); Johnson v. United States, No. 7:13CV78, 2015 WL 4622710, at *2 (E.D. N.C. July 31, 2015), aff'd 637 Fed.Appx. 106 (4th Cir. 2016) (per curiam) (“In an action to recover overpayment of tax, the taxpayer bears the burden of proof by a preponderance of the evidence to demonstrate that the determination was incorrect as well as the correct amount of tax, if any”); 26 U.S.C. §§ 6511, 6532, 7422 (West, Westlaw through P.L. 115-193) (providing time limitations and administrative exhaustion requirements).

         Ms. Coggin maintains that the 2002-2007 joint returns filed by Mr. Coggin are invalid and that the separate returns she filed later are valid and show the correct amount of tax she owes. She maintains that she is entitled to a refund based on the difference between the taxes assessed and paid by Mr. Coggin when he submitted the joint returns and the taxes assessed in her separate tax returns, which showed a smaller tax due. The defendants contend that the undisputed facts establish that the 2002 through 2007 joint returns are valid and cannot be revoked; as a result, Ms. Coggin cannot establish that the taxes assessed in the separate returns are correct and that she is entitled to a refund based on the difference between the taxes assessed in the joint and separate returns. Ms. Coggin maintains that there is a genuine issue as to whether she intended to file the 2002 through 2007 joint tax returns and that this is a material fact in view of the undisputed forgeries, since absent such intent, those joint returns are invalid. Thus, this case turns on whether the joint tax returns were valid.

         B. Law on Validity

         A husband and wife may elect to file a joint tax return or they may file separately. See 26 U.S.C. § 6013(a). Except in circumstances not present here, a valid joint return cannot be revoked. See United States v. Guy, 978 F.2d 934, 937 (6th Cir. 1992) (finding that the filing of a valid joint return precludes the filing of a separate return and citing 26 C.F.R. § 1.6013-1 (a)(1)); Ladden v. Comm'r, 38 T.C. 530, 534-35 (1962) (finding that joint tax returns are not revocable); 26 C.F.R. § 1.6013-1 (a)(1) (West, Westlaw through July 6, 2018) (“For any taxable year with respect to which a joint return has been filed, separate returns shall not be made by the spouses after the time for filing the return of either has expired.”).[2] A refund suit is not a mechanism for revoking a valid joint tax return and substituting an untimely separate return. See McNeil v. United States, No. 96-CV-624, 1997 WL 634535, at *3 (N.D. Okla. May 16, 1997) (dismissing refund claims based on untimely separate return filed after valid joint return).

         Thus, one spouse cannot file a valid joint return and then, years later, seek to replace that joint return with a separate return. See id.; see also Guy, 978 F.2d at 938 (allowing the government to recover a refund after finding the refund was erroneous because it was calculated based on a separate return that was filed after a valid joint return). Consistent with this established law, the parties appear to agree that if the joint returns filed by Mr. Coggin were valid, then Ms. Coggin cannot seek to “undo” those returns based on her later-filed separate returns. If, however, the joint returns were not valid, then Ms. Coggin could file valid separate returns.

         To be valid, a joint return must be signed, typically by both the husband and wife. See 26 U.S.C. § 6061(a) (West, Westlaw through P.L. 115-193) (“any return . . . shall be signed”); 26 C.F.R. § 1.6013-1(a)(2) (requiring both the husband and wife to sign the joint return); Olpin v. Comm'r, 270 F.3d 1297, 1300 (10th Cir. 2001) (explaining that the Code “clearly states that, in order to be valid, a tax return must be signed”). Generally, an unsigned tax return is invalid. See, e.g., Lucas v. Pilliod Lumber Co., 281 U.S. 245, 249 (1930) (a return unverified by oath did not meet the plain requirements of the statute); Bachner v. Comm'r, 81 F.3d 1274, 1280 (3d Cir. 1996) (“[I]nclusion of the taxpayer's signature is a prerequisite to the validity of the tax return.”); accord, Brafman v. United States, 384 F.2d 863, 868 (5th Cir. 1967); Shea v. Comm'r, 780 F.2d 561, 568 (6th Cir. 1986).

         There is a limited exception to the rule requiring both signatures: when only one spouse signs a joint return, the return is valid if the non-signing spouse intended to file jointly. See Olpin, 270 F.3d at 1301 (10th Cir. 2001); In re Hanesworth,936 F.2d 583 (table), 1991 WL 114639, *1-2 (10th Cir. June 26, 1991); United States v. Barnes, 509 Fed.Appx. 837, 839-40 (11th Cir. 2012). “The intent to file jointly may be inferred from the acquiescence of the nonsigning spouse.” Crew v. Comm'r, 44 T.C.M. 1145 (CCH) (T.C. 1982). Thus, “where a husband files a joint return without objection of the wife, who fails to file a separate return, it will be presumed the joint return was filed ...

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