When a married couple files a joint tax return, each spouse is “jointly and severally” liable for the full amount of tax on the couple’s combined income. However, in some cases, a married couple files a joint tax return and one spouse is unaware of all the income or delinquent tax liabilities of the other spouse. The spouse who is in the dark still must generally pay the tax bill even if the couple divorces or the spouse passes away. But there may be “innocent spouse” relief.
More often than not, we have worked on such cases and received great outcomes. The innocent spouses were left with unexpected tax liabilities after life-changing events such as divorce or spouse’s sudden passing. We received their sincere thank you for restoring their shattered lives and alleviating their financial burdens.
Innocent spouse relief
To qualify, you must show not only that you didn’t know about the understatement, but that there was nothing that should have made you suspicious. In addition, the circumstances must make it inequitable to hold you liable for the tax. This relief is available even if you’re still married and living with your spouse.
In addition, spouses may be able to limit liability for any tax deficiency on a joint return if they’re widowed, divorced, legally separated or have lived apart for at least one year.
Election to limit liability
If you make this election, the tax items that gave rise to the deficiency will be allocated between you and your spouse as if you’d filed separate returns. For example, you’d generally be liable for the tax on any unreported wage income only to the extent that you earned the wages.
The election won’t provide relief from your spouse’s tax items if the IRS proves that you knew about the items when you signed the return — unless you can show that you signed the return under duress. Also, the limitation on your liability is increased by the value of any assets that your spouse transferred to you in order to avoid the tax.
An “injured” spouse
In addition to innocent spouse relief, there’s also relief for “injured” spouses. What’s the difference? An injured spouse claim asks the IRS to allocate part of a joint refund to one spouse. In these cases, an injured spouse has all or part of a refund from a joint return applied against past-due federal tax, state tax, child or spousal support, or a federal nontax debt (such as a student loan) owed by the other spouse. If you’re an injured spouse, you may be entitled to recoup your share of the refund.
Whether, and to what extent, you can take advantage of the above relief depends on the facts of your situation. If you’re interested in trying to obtain relief, there’s paperwork that must be filed and deadlines that must be met. We can assist you with the details.
Also, keep “joint and several liability” in mind when filing future tax returns. Even if a joint return results in less tax, you may choose to file a separate return if you want to be certain of being responsible only for your own tax.
Contact us with any questions or concerns.