Destruction by Fire “Good Cause Shown” for Abatement

Carr v. Town of New London
New Hampshire Supreme Court No. 2016-0350
Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The petitioners’ home in New London was struck by lightning and burned to the ground in July 2014. They could not use it for 272 of the 365 days of the 2014 tax year.

The petitioners failed to file for a proration of their property tax assessment within 60 days of the destruction, as required under RSA 76:21, which provides: “Whenever a taxable building is damaged due to unintended fire or natural disaster to the extent that it renders the building not able to be used . . . the assessing officials shall prorate the assessment for the building for the current tax year.”

Instead, they filed for a tax abatement under RSA 76:16 in January 2015. The town denied the abatement.

On appeal, the town argued that because the date of assessment of property is April 1, a subsequent event during the tax year—here, the fire—does not alter the taxpayer’s obligation. Instead, the sole exception—and the petitioners exclusive remedy—was proration under RSA 76:21. The town further noted that the New Hampshire Court had never upheld a tax abatement for “good cause shown” under RSA 76:16 for anything other than disproportionate assessment or inability to pay.

But the Court disagreed with the town, noting it had also never limited tax abatements to those reasons, and that an abatement was an equitable form that gave the select board broad power. The Court determined that loss by fire could be “good cause” for granting an abatement. Finally, the Court concluded that RSA 76:21 was not meant to be an exclusive remedy, focusing in on paragraph VI, which states that “nothing in this section shall limit the ability of the assessing officials to abate taxes for good cause shown pursuant to RSA 76:16.”

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