In January of 1996, the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court handed down a decision which every owner of Real Estate in New Jersey should be aware of. In the case of Tower Center Associates v. Township of East Brunswick, the Appellate Court upheld the decision of the Tax Court which prohibited a taxpayer from introducing any contrary proof of value at a tax appeal hearing.This taxpayer had brought a tax appeal challenging the Township’s assessment of its property. The Court held that the taxpayer was prohibited from introducing evidence of value because the taxpayer failed to respond to the written request for financial information which the taxpayer had received from the tax assessor. This request for information was made during the tax year preceding the tax appeal.
New Jersey Law provides that a tax assessor is permitted to request financial information about a property, such as income and expense information, mortgage information, and itemized rent-roll information, among other items. Typically, this request for information is sent in the form of questionnaire from the tax assessor. The document appears standardized in format and may be easily set aside or disposed of upon receipt. The request may or may not be accompanied by a clear explanatory letter setting forth the importance of completing and returning the document within the prescribed forty-five day reply period. The tax assessor may also follow up with reminders or additional requests, although there is no obligation to send reminders.
The taxpayer in the Tower Center case elected to ignore the request for information from the tax assessor. The law is clear that a response to the request must be made within forty-five days of receipt of the request. A taxpayer may object to the request, or answer the request, but the taxpayer may not simply ignore the request. In this case, the taxpayer’s decision to ignore the request resulted in the taxpayer effectively being barred from challenging the assessment. The principle which underlies this Court decision is easy to comprehend. The information requested by the tax assessor is intended to be used in properly assessing a value for the property to be taxed. A taxpayer will not be permitted to challenge the municipal tax assessment if the taxpayer did not cooperate and provide the information requested by the assessor.
As property owners and as real estate taxpayers, if a written request for information is received from a municipal tax assessor, respond within the time period required. If you are uncertain as to how to respond, or whether or not the information requested is properly or legally requested, contact your legal advisor immediately. Silence is rarely an effective approach in a situation such as this.
Stuard D. Liebman is the Managing Partner of WJ&L, LLP and Chairperson of the Land Use Department.