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5 Tax implications of divorce

Are you in the early stages of divorce? In addition to the tough personal issues that you’re dealing with, several tax concerns need to be addressed to ensure that taxes are kept to a minimum and that important tax-related decisions are properly made. Here are five issues to consider if you’re in the process of getting a divorce.

  1. Alimony or support payments. For alimony under divorce or separation agreements that are executed after 2018, there’s no deduction for alimony and separation support payments for the spouse making them. And the alimony payments aren’t included in the gross income of the spouse receiving them. (The rules are different for divorce or separation agreements executed before 2019.)
  2. Child support. No matter when the divorce or separation instrument is executed, child support payments aren’t deductible by the paying spouse (or taxable to the recipient).
  3. Personal residence. In general, if a married couple sells their home in connection with a divorce or legal separation, they should be able to avoid tax on up to $500,000 of gain (as long as they’ve owned and used the residence as their principal residence for two of the previous five years). If one spouse continues to live in the home and the other moves out (but they both remain owners of the home), they may still be able to avoid gain on the future sale of the home (up to $250,000 each), but special language may have to be included in the divorce decree or separation agreement to protect this tax exclusion for the spouse who moves out.
    If the couple doesn’t meet the two-year ownership and use tests, any gain from the sale may qualify for a reduced exclusion due to unforeseen circumstances.
  4. Pension benefits. A spouse’s pension benefits are often part of a divorce property settlement. In these cases, the commonly preferred method to handle the benefits is to get a “qualified domestic relations order” (QDRO). This gives one spouse the right to share in the pension benefits of the other and taxes the spouse who receives the benefits. Without a QDRO the spouse who earned the benefits will still be taxed on them even though they’re paid out to the other spouse.
  5. Business interests. If certain types of business interests are transferred in connection with divorce, care should be taken to make sure “tax attributes” aren’t forfeited. For example, interests in S corporations may result in “suspended” losses (losses that are carried into future years instead of being deducted in the year they’re incurred). When these interests change hands in a divorce, the suspended losses may be forfeited. If a partnership interest is transferred, a variety of more complex issues may arise involving partners’ shares of partnership debt, capital accounts, built-in gains on contributed property, and other complex issues.

A variety of other issues

These are just some of the issues you may have to deal with if you’re getting a divorce. In addition, you must decide how to file your tax return (single, married filing jointly, married filing separately or head of household). You may need to adjust your income tax withholding and you should notify the IRS of any new address or name change. There are also estate planning considerations. We can help you work through all of the financial issues involved in divorce.

Getting a divorce? Be aware of tax implications if you own a business

If you’re a business owner and you’re getting a divorce, tax issues can complicate matters. Your business ownership interest is one of your biggest personal assets and in many cases, your marital property will include all or part of it.

Tax-free property transfers

You can generally divide most assets, including cash and business ownership interests, between you and your soon-to-be ex-spouse without any federal income or gift tax consequences. When an asset falls under this tax-free transfer rule, the spouse who receives the asset takes over its existing tax basis (for tax gain or loss purposes) and its existing holding period (for short-term or long-term holding period purposes).

Let’s say that under the terms of your divorce agreement, you give your house to your spouse in exchange for keeping 100% of the stock in your business. That asset swap would be tax-free. And the existing basis and holding periods for the home and the stock would carry over to the person who receives them.

Tax-free transfers can occur before a divorce or at the time it becomes final. Tax-free treatment also applies to post-divorce transfers as long as they’re made “incident to divorce.” This means transfers that occur within:

  1. A year after the date the marriage ends, or
  2. Six years after the date the marriage ends if the transfers are made pursuant to your divorce agreement. 

More tax issues

Later on, there will be tax implications for assets received tax-free in a divorce settlement. The ex-spouse who winds up owning an appreciated asset — when the fair market value exceeds the tax basis — generally must recognize taxable gain when it’s sold (unless an exception applies).

What if your ex-spouse receives 49% of your highly appreciated small business stock? Thanks to the tax-free transfer rule, there’s no tax impact when the shares are transferred. Your ex will continue to apply the same tax rules as if you had continued to own the shares, including carryover basis and carryover holding period. When your ex-spouse ultimately sells the shares, he or she will owe any capital gains taxes. You will owe nothing.

Note that the person who winds up owning appreciated assets must pay the built-in tax liability that comes with them. From a net-of-tax perspective, appreciated assets are worth less than an equal amount of cash or other assets that haven’t appreciated. That’s why you should always take taxes into account when negotiating your divorce agreement.

In addition, the beneficial tax-free transfer rule is now extended to ordinary-income assets, not just to capital-gains assets. For example, if you transfer business receivables or inventory to your ex-spouse in a divorce, these types of ordinary-income assets can also be transferred tax-free. When the asset is later sold, converted to cash or exercised (in the case of nonqualified stock options), the person who owns the asset at that time must recognize the income and pay the tax liability.

Plan ahead to avoid surprises

Like many major life events, divorce can have major tax implications. For example, you may receive an unexpected tax bill if you don’t carefully handle the splitting up of qualified retirement plan accounts (such as a 401(k) plan) and IRAs. And if you own a business, the stakes are higher. We can help you minimize the adverse tax consequences of settling your divorce.