Saved! NH Supreme Court Allows Tax Abatement Request Despite Lack of Required Signature
Challenging real estate tax assessments in New Hampshire requires compliance with a handful of statutory steps. Among other things, taxpayers must identify the property in question, state the reasons the property is being taxed at a disproportionately higher value than other properties in town, and sign the application. Failure to comply with any of these steps can be grounds for dismissal.
The signature requirement continues to cause problems. In the 2011 decision Appeal of Wilson, 161 N.H. 659 (2011), the New Hampshire Supreme Court upheld the town of Sugar Hill’s decision to deny a taxpayer’s abatement when he decided to have a personal representative sign the form on his behalf before submitting it to the town for consideration. The taxpayer’s appeal to the NH Supreme Court occurred after the town would not reconsider his plea and the Board of Tax and Land Appeals (BTLA) upheld the town’s decision.
Based in the BTLA’s rules, a municipality may deny a taxpayer’s abatement application if the taxpayer fails to sign unless the taxpayer can prove the omission was “due to reasonable cause and not willful neglect.” In Wilson, the choice to have a personal representative sign the application, without other extenuating circumstances, was a “willful” act that ultimately led the NH Supreme Court to uphold the dismissal.
Dismissal of an application based on lack of signature is not a foregone conclusion, however. In a recent decision, Appeal of Keith R. Mader 2000 Revocable Trust, (June 5, 2020), the NH Supreme Court refined its view on how to interpret “reasonable cause and not willful neglect.” In this decision, the NH Supreme Court reversed the BTLA’s dismissal of an abatement application due to a missing signature.
In February 2018, a group of taxpayers sought legal representation when their property taxes increased dramatically. The lawyer responded immediately, stating he would represent them, but would be on vacation through Feb 26, only three (3) days before the deadline to file the abatement applications. The attorney sent his fee agreement to the owners, sought out an appraiser, and left for vacation. The owners signed the fee agreement while the attorney was away.
When the attorney returned, he filed abatement applications, but did not obtain the requisite signatures from the owners, rather, he signed the applications on the owners’ behalf. All but one represented owner lived out-of-state.
The town denied the applications and the owners appealed to the BTLA. The BTLA denied the appeal based on property owners’ failure to have personally signed the abatement applications in accordance with RSA 76:16 and NH Admin. R. Tax 203.02(d). The Board concluded the taxpayers’ failure to sign the applications was not due to “reasonable cause” and not “willful neglect,” which otherwise would have excused the oversight.
In reversing the BTLA, the Court held that reasonable cause is an occurrence that is “objectively reasonable under the circumstances….” Applying that principle to the Mader case, the Court concluded that it was “objectively reasonable” for the attorney to have signed the applications on his clients’ behalf when the attorney only had three days to file on behalf of several clients who lived out-of-state.
Paul J. Alfano, C.E.O.