Marriage is a beautiful thing, and for some people, it is the key to long-lasting happiness and even personal wealth. But even the beauty of marriage can wilt and wither, and what was once a happy flourishing relationship can turn to separation and divorce. In those cases, no amount of money can buy back the happiness of the relationship, and the division of property that is the marker of a relationship ended ensues. When a marriage ends, it often brings with it issues of spousal support – and that spousal support can take different forms.
Alimony is the form of spousal support that most people are familiar with – it is the payment if funds from one spouse to the other for ongoing maintenance. Alimony is designed to allow a recipient spouse to take care of himself or herself. Property settlement, on the other hand, is the division of the assets of the marriage. It is the separation of those things that the marriage has jointly acquired between the two individuals as they move in separate directions.
These two concepts seem similar but have different consequences for tax purposes. Generally speaking, property settlement has few to no tax consequences. Alimony, on the other hand, is taxable as income to the receiving party and deductible as an expense by the paying party. The different treatment does not change whether you are dealing with a multi-million dollar marriage or something much smaller, though the tax amount varies considerably.
The recent Enron case interestingly has even touched the world of divorce and the separation of property with that goes along with it. Byron Georgiou, an attorney associated with the case, entered into a divorce just prior to the completion of that case. Pursuant to the divorce agreement, his ex-wife was to be entitled to 10% of the fees he received from the case. When the case settled, Byron was awarded $55 million in fees. His ex-wife, Maria Leslie, was therefore entitled to $5 million. The language of the marital settlement agreement had placed the provision related to the fee award in the section of the agreement related to division of property. It then used language that clearly identified it as spousal support that was intended to be taxable income for the wife.
The responsibility to pay taxes is a serious one, and the United States Tax Court does not make exceptions based on mental health or divorce. Ms. Leslie was recently in front of them for failure to pay taxes. She had multiple arguments regarding the amount of taxes she was due and for which tax year. Leslie had been scammed for $400,000.00 in an African diamond scam, and the issues before the court related to whether the funds were intended as spousal support or were instead a division of marital property.
Leslie was fortunate to have the court find that money she had been swindled in the scam was properly considered a theft loss that she could legally write off. However, the court also found that the income she received from her ex-husband’s participation in the Enron litigation was taxable income to her. The court found that the language in the agreement identified it as such, even though it was in the section of the agreement on property settlement and even though it did not include any provision for termination at the time of her death.
Teasing out whether support is intended to serve as alimony or as a property settlement can have major consequences for both spouses. That’s one of the reasons it’s so important to make sure your divorce papers are handled by an experienced attorney who is an expert in California divorce law. Contact the attorneys at the Law Offices of Judy L. Burger today to learn how our attorneys can help in your case: (415) 293-8314.