In general, a husband and wife are jointly and separately liable for any tax, penalty and interest owed for a year in which they have filed a joint tax return. This means that the IRS can collect the entire amount of tax owed from either spouse alone, regardless of who reported income, or who may have been responsible for errors, omissions, or fraud on a tax return. Joint and several liability thus can potentially result in a situation where substantial amounts of taxes, penalty and interest are owed by one spouse due to the errors, omissions, or fraud committed by the other spouse.
Difficulties involving joint and several liability tend to arise especially when spouses have divorced or separated, and are no longer living together after they have filed a joint tax return. A spouse who is responsible for the errors, omissions, or fraud in a tax return may have an incentive to not cooperate with the former spouse, and may be difficult to even locate. However, due to the fact that a joint return was filed, the IRS could collect the entire amount of tax, penalties, and interest owed from the spouse who was not at fault for the problematic tax return.
In order to provide a remedy for this unjust outcome, in certain circumstances, the IRS allows a spouse, who lacked knowledge of a tax understatement and did not engage in activity giving rise to the understatement, to claim “Innocent Spouse Relief” resulting in full or partial relief from the payments and penalties associated with an understatement of tax made by another spouse.
Legal Test for Innocent Spouse Relief
In order to qualify for Innocent Spouse Relief, all five of the following conditions must be met:
1. A taxpayer must have filed a joint return for a taxable year.
2. On the tax return, there was an understatement of tax attributable to “erroneous items” (see definition below) of a spouse (or former spouse).
3. A taxpayer must establish that when he/she signed the joint return he/she did not know (“actual knowledge”) and “had no reason to know”, that there was an understatement of tax.
4. Taking into account all the facts and circumstances, it would be unfair to hold the taxpayer liable for the deficiency in tax for such taxable year attributable to the tax understatement; and
5. A request for innocent spouse relief will not be granted if the IRS can prove that the taxpayer requesting Innocent Spouse Relief and the taxpayer’s spouse (or former spouse) transferred property to one another as part of a fraudulent scheme. (A fraudulent scheme includes a scheme to defraud the IRS or another third party, such as a creditor, ex-spouse, or business partner.)
a) Erroneous Items: an “item” for the Innocent Spouse Relief purposes generally means anything that is required to be reported separately on a tax return or its attachments. There are two types of erroneous items. The first is unreported income, which is any gross income item received by a spouse (or former spouse) that is not reported. The second is an any improper deduction, credit, or property basis claimed by a spouse (or former spouse).
b) Actual Knowledge: if taxpayer requesting Innocent Spouse Relief actually knew about an
erroneous item that belongs to his/her spouse (or former spouse), then the taxpayer will not qualify for Innocent Spouse Relief, and will remain jointly liable for that part of the understatement.
c) Reason To Know: If a reasonable person in similar circumstances would have known of the
understatement, then the taxpayer will not qualify for Innocent Spouse Relief, and will remain jointly liable for that part of the understatement. The IRS will consider a number of facts and circumstances in determining whether a taxpayer had reason to know of an understatement of tax due to an erroneous item, including the taxpayer’s educational background and business experience, the financial situation of both spouses, the nature of the erroneous item and the amount of the erroneous item in relation to other items, the extent of the taxpayer’s participation in the activity that resulted in the erroneous item, whether a reasonable person would have inquired at the time the tax return was signed about the erroneous items, omitted items on the return, and whether the erroneous item represented a departure from a recurring pattern reflected in prior years’ returns.
d) Indications of Unfairness: The IRS will examine a number of factors including, whether the taxpayer’s spouse (or former spouse) deserted him/her, whether the taxpayer and his/her spouse have divorced or separated, whether the taxpayer benefitted from the understatement on the return, and whether the taxpayer received a “significant benefit” (any benefit in excess of normal support), including transfers of property or rights to property, and transfers that are received several years after the year of the understatement.
Types of Innocent Spouse Relief
There are three types of Innocent Spouse Relief available:
1. Full Relief from tax liability (including penalties and interest) for a taxable year to the extent that the liability is attributable to the tax understatement on the joint return. There are certain requirements which must be met in order to qualify.
2. Apportionment of Relief from tax liability (including penalties and interest) for a taxable year. Under this type of innocent spouse relief, the understatement of tax is apportioned between the taxpayer and his/her (or former spouse). In order to meet this type of relief, a taxpayer must show that he or she did not know, and had no reason to know, the extent of understatement on a tax return. If granted, the taxpayer will be relieved of a tax liability to the extent that such liability is attributable to the portion of the understatement that the taxpayer did not know, or did not have reason to know that was in error or omitted.
3. Equitable Relief may be granted if an individual does not meet the requirements for the first two types of relief, but, after taking all the facts and circumstances into consideration, the IRS determines it would be inequitable to hold the taxpayer liable for the unpaid tax.
How Sherayzen Law Office can Assist You
Requesting Innocent Spouse Relief may require legal expertise because of the specificity of the requirements involved, and the necessity of persuading the IRS that you qualify for this relief. Moreover, in some cases, the Tax Code regulations governing the Innocent Spouse Relief process may themselves be challenged in courts. Sherayzen Law Office can help you understand and comply with the required regulations, draft the necessary documents and represent you in your negotiations with the IRS in order to help you limit your tax liability.
Call NOW to discuss your case with an experienced tax attorney!