The case was presented to the court on the following stipulated set of facts.
Plaintiffs are the owners of certain real estate in defendant township. Their property was assessed for real estate tax purposes and tax bills forwarded to them by the tax collector. Prior to the second half of 1958 plaintiffs' property was described as "20 acres meadow, 47.99/100 acres farmland, house and outbuildings, stock, etc." The township, apparently because it had no tax map, did not refer to any block or lot on the bill, which showed total taxes for the year 1957 (upon which the taxes for the first half of 1958 were based) of $606.73. The assessment was $1,640 for land, $2,100 for buildings, and $600 for personalty, resulting in a total of $4,340. The tax rate was $13.98 per $100 of assessed valuation. Commencing with the second half of 1958, tax bills contained the same general description of plaintiffs' property but also referred to Block 44, Lots 5-6-7. In the last half of 1958 the assessment was increased to $7,850 while the tax rate was reduced to $10.92 per $100.
The same property description appears until the last half of 1968, when the township discovered that Lot 5 was not owned by plaintiffs and reference to it was deleted from subsequent tax bills. Thereafter, Lot 5 was assessed to its true owner and (without the lot reference) also assessed to plaintiffs. Plaintiffs owned only the property known as
Block 44, Lot 6, on the township's tax map. Lot 7 was owned by David Davis Wilkins, who died and whose estate and trust are defendants. Lot 5 was owned by John Croft III until sometime after 1955 when he conveyed it to Croft Farms, Inc. Both Croft and the corporation are named as defendants.
Plaintiffs paid all of the tax bills they received from 1955 to 1975, without protest, and, until the latter year, without actual knowledge that their assessment included properties which they did not own. Upon discovery of this error plaintiffs requested that their mistaken payments be refunded. The township denied the request. Plaintiffs now seek a recovery of the excess taxes paid but waive any claim to those not assessed by lot and block numbers, i.e. , taxes assessed prior to 1958. It was agreed that a declaratory judgment should be rendered and, if favorable to plaintiffs, an informal accounting would be submitted to the Township of Evesham in order that its governing body could determine the amount of taxes to be refunded.
The case turns on N.J.S.A. 54:4-54, which provides as follows:
Whereby mistake property real or personal has been twice entered and assessed on the tax duplicate, the governing body of the taxing district or county board of taxation may order and cause the tax record to be corrected and if the tax has been twice paid the governing body of the taxing district shall refund the excessive payment without interest. Where by mistake an assessment intended for one parcel has been placed upon another, the governing body may cancel the erroneous assessment return without interest any money paid by one not the owner of the parcel intended to be assessed, and enter upon the record the assessment and tax against the proper parcel, after a hearing upon five days' notice to the owner. Where one person has by mistake paid the tax on the property of another supposing it to be his own, the governing body after a hearing on five days' notice to the owner, may return the money paid in error without interest and restore the record of the assessment and tax against the property in the name of the true owner, provided the lien of the tax has not expired and no transfer or encumbrance has been put on record against the property since the date of the payment in error. No assessment of real or personal
property shall be considered invalid because listed or assessed in the name of one not the owner thereof, or because erroneously classed as the land of an unknown or nonresident owner.
Plaintiffs are entitled to relief, as to the Croft lot, under the first sentence of the statute, for those years when that lot was "twice entered and assessed." The statutory language is unambiguous and the equities obvious.
The second sentence of this section can afford plaintiffs no relief because the problem is not that the assessments were incorrectly placed on the parcels of land, but rather that a person other than the owner of the parcels was assessed. The third sentence of this section applies to both properties, erroneously assessed to plaintiffs. Plaintiffs are "persons" who have "by mistake, paid the tax on the property of another supposing it to be [their] own." The question arises, however, whether the last clause of this sentence bars plaintiffs from obtaining relief because the properties have been transferred since the date of the erroneous payments. (The requirement that the lien of the tax has not expired ...