Tax liability for spouses all depends on the status of your marriage when your spouse filed that return.
It’s a reasonable question in all sorts of situations: If my spouse owes back taxes am I liable?
The answer hinges on your relationship status at the time your spouse incurred the tax debt. It also relies heavily on whether you filed jointly.
When you file jointly, you assume “joint and several liability,” which means that each taxpayer is legally responsible for a debt.
This table gives you a quick reference of liability based on the status of your marriage. You can learn more about each situation below.
|Marriage Status||Tax Liability||What You Should Do|
|Tax debt incurred BEFORE you were married||None – your spouse is solely liable||Apply for Injured Spouse status if you refund gets intercepted to pay the debt|
|Tax debt incurred DURING the marriage in a year where you filed jointly||Potential liability – must prove you had no knowledge of debt and could not be reasonably expected to know, and that you received no benefit from the refund||Apply for Innocent Spouse to get full tax debt forgiveness for any back taxes incurred|
|Tax debt incurred AFTER your separation||If you filed jointly, you may be held liable||Apply for Separation of Liability relief to assume partial liability|
Need help applying for one of these status to limit or eliminate your liability? Connect with a certified tax resolution specialist now!
If your spouse incurred tax debt before you married…
You have no liability for tax debt incurred before you entered the picture officially. So, if your spouse owes back taxes from before you got married, then those debts are solely theirs to repay.
As a result, you may qualify for “Injured Spouse” status if the IRS intercepts your refund to cover back taxes for your spouse. If you file jointly and don’t get a refund because the funds went to pay their debt, you can get your part of the refund back.
If you filed jointly the year your spouse incurred the back taxes …
In this case, your liability depends on a few things:
- Did you know about the filing issues that led to the back taxes?
- Are you still together?
- Have you benefited at all from the fraudulent IRS tax return?
If you can prove that you didn’t know your spouse filed incorrectly, you may qualify for Innocent Spouse. However, you must be able to show that you had no knowledge of the understated taxes, and could not have reasonably known.
In addition, you can’t benefit from any refund received for the year your spouse the understated taxes.
If your spouse decides to take you on a Caribbean cruise after receiving a $10,000 tax refund even though you’ve never received that much previously, would it jeopardize an innocent spouse claim?
If you ignore signs that something isn’t right, the IRS is unlikely to grant you an Innocent Spouse Relief claim. The IRS does not consider willful ignorance a good reason not to know about a tax issue.
However, if you can prove you did not know about the false filing and didn’t benefit from it, then Innocent Spouse may apply. If you qualify, you would enjoy full tax debt forgiveness on any back taxes owed.
If you weren’t together when the filing occurred…
In some cases, joint filings can occur even if you aren’t really together. Maybe you’re still married, but you live apart and are heading for divorce. Your spouse may file jointly because that’s what you’ve always done.
In this case, you can qualify for “Separation of Liability Relief,” which means that you are no longer married and wish to assume partial liability. If you can show you are divorced, legally separated or have not lived together for at least 12 months prior to your claim, then you may qualify.
Failing relationships make for messy tax situations
If you want to qualify for any of the statuses listed above, be ready for the IRS to get into your business. “Significant benefit” means the IRS will look at your life to see if you got a gift or something else of value. If you want separation of liability, then you’ll need to show you’re really separated.
In addition, when you file for Innocent Spouse, they will contact said spouse to get any “relevant information.” In other words, your former estranged spouse may try to use the opportunity to make sure you’re on the hook, too. If they can show that you knew, then the best you can hope for is separation of liability.
If you’re facing problems with the IRS through no fault of your own, connect with a certified tax professional to talk about your options.
Q: Am I responsible for my spouse’s tax debt before we were married?
A: No. If your spouse incurred tax debt from a previous income tax filing before you were married, you are not liable. However, if you file jointly then any tax refund that you receive may be intercepted to pay off part of the debt. Your spouse cannot receive money back from the IRS until they pay the agency what they owe.
If your spouse owes back taxes when you tie the knot, file separately until they repay the debt. Otherwise you won’t get your refund. If you file separately and the IRS intercepts your refund, then you can apply for injured spouse status. This will ensure you get the money you’re due from your tax returns.
Q: If my husband owes back taxes can they take my refund?
A: If you were married when your spouse incurred the back taxes, then yes. If you file jointly, then you assume “joint and several” liability. That means you’re on the hook for any taxes your husband owes. If you file separately (individually), then you would not be liable because you both assume individual liability.
However, just because you are not liable, it doesn’t mean your tax refund won’t be intercepted. Even if you weren’t married when your spouse in incurred the debt, the IRS may intercept your refund now. In this case, you simply apply for injured Spouse status to get the money you’re owed.
Article last modified on May 14, 2018. Published by Debt.com, LLC . Mobile users may also access the AMP Version: If My Spouse Owes Back Taxes Am I Liable? - AMP.