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Nunc Pro Tunc — A Definition

Sarah Edwards | November 30, 2022

Judges when they sign a nunc pro tunc order ^^

Summary: Nunc pro tunc, a Latin term translated to “now for then”, is to apply an order or judgment retroactively when the court wants correct clerical errors from court clerks on public records and errors in the history of judicial proceedings.

The legal phrase “nunc pro tunc” originally came from Great Britain. It’s a Latin term that translates into “now for then.” Many countries, including the U.S., use the phrase to refer to a retroactive correction of a prior ruling.

What is the history behind nunc pro tunc?

The Court of Chancery first used the term nunc pro tunc in 1388. In a ruling, the court used the phrase to describe how judgments currently applied had the same legal force as if entered on an earlier day.

Similarly, in 1805, Lord Chancellor Lord Eldon used nunc pro tunc as a decree in a case where documents submitted were enough to finalize a judgment that should have been in effect on the date the parties made the records.

Today, nunc pro tunc commonly arises in cases involving probate, clerical errors from court clerks on public records, and errors in the history of judicial proceedings.

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Nunc pro tunc can impact corporations like it does people

The law considers U.S. corporations to have the same legal standing as people. If a corporation goes bankrupt, a court may seize its assets to sell at auction. The proceeds from the auction go to satisfy unpaid tax obligations and creditor liabilities.

However, someone interested in owning the corporation can purchase the assets and the shell of the corporation. Once they repay the tax obligations and apply for the appropriate registrations and licenses, they can claim the corporation is nunc pro tunc.

Under the nunc pro tunc argument, the shell corporation becomes the original corporation and holds its original assets.

What does nunc pro tunc have to do with the IRS?

Sometimes, taxpayers file their returns with the IRS and write “nunc pro tunc” on the face of the document. These taxpayers believe that using the phrase will allow them to reduce or otherwise alter their federal tax obligations.

However, the IRS holds that nunc pro tunc is a frivolous argument with no bearings. People who use the statement to avoid taxes may incur a $5,000 fine.

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How does nunc pro tunc impact litigation?

Nunc pro tunc is a common argument when a court clerk makes an error when filing the final judgment after a court case. For instance, if the judge found the defendant guilty in a criminal proceeding but the court clerk accidentally wrote “not guilty” on the final judgment, the prosecutor may file a nunc pro tunc argument.

In that example, the court clerk would correct the final judgment to the appropriate finding, and the decree would be in effect from the date of the original determination.

Nunc pro tunc can correct old court documents

Courts review numerous records, including judgments, pleadings, marriage and divorce certificates, and wills and estate documents. If the information on a document is incorrect, the court may use the doctrine of nunc pro tunc to correct it.

For example, if a court clerk issues a marriage certificate with the wrong date or a misspelled name, the recipients can ask the court to correct the certificate under nunc pro tunc rules.

Another example is an estate document. Consider someone whose will includes a list of their assets and who will inherit them. However, they fail to update their will to include a few parcels of real estate they purchase before their death.

The court could use the doctrine to include the real estate in the will under nunc pro tunc and decide how to distribute it among the recipients.

The Catholic Church uses nunc pro tunc in a slightly different way

In the Catholic Church, bishops who resign from their positions receive a nunc pro tunc acceptance. Under the doctrine, the pope accepts their resignation but asks them to remain in their post until they locate another replacement.

Once the pope finds a replacement for the bishop, they receive full acceptance of their resignation.

Is nunc pro tunc common?

Nunc pro tunc is typical when court clerks make an error in court records. They’ll use the doctrine to correct the records and assert that the correction applies to the original date of the decree. The decree may apply to a judge's findings or to court documents like a marriage, birth, or death certificate.

While the IRS dismisses nunc pro tunc as having any meaning in tax returns, some taxpayers continue to use the argument when filing their taxes. However, they are subject to a hefty fine if they try to use nunc pro tunc to avoid tax liability.

You can also see nunc pro tunc used in the Catholic Church when bishops or other high-ranking officials resign.

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