Sunday, February 25, 2018

A Divorce Decree And Past Taxes


Let’s say that a couple divorces. The divorce decree stipulates that liability for previous federal taxes will be split 50:50. They had always filed jointly The IRS audits one or more of those earlier years and assesses additional taxes.

Question: what is each spouse’s liability?

Your first thought might be 50:50, as that is what the divorce decree says.

Our protagonists this time would find out.

Mae Asad and Sam Akel filed joint returns for 2008 and 2009. The IRS audited those years, looking at rental losses. They disallowed the losses and assessed over $30,000 in taxes and penalties.

Mae filed for innocent spouse.

Later Sam filed for innocent spouse.

NOTE: Filing for innocent spouse status means that a spouse (probably an ex-spouse, but I had a client who was still married) has been assessed taxes for which he/she does not believe he/she is responsible. The classic case is the stay-at-home spouse, the other self-employed spouse, and the stay-at-home has no participation in or knowledge of the other’s business. Think Carmela Soprano.

The IRS bounced both requests for innocent spouse.

Both ex-spouses filed with the Tax Court.

Before the hearing, the IRS conceded that Mae was responsible for 28% of the 2008 tax and 41% of the 2009 tax. Sam of course was responsible for the balance.

Seems to me that Sam might not like this deal.

I do not know how, but Mae agreed to a 50:50 split. She did not have to, mind you.

The courts have been consistent that a divorce decree is not binding on the IRS, as the IRS is not party to the divorce.  A joint return means that both spouses are liable, and the IRS can go after one … or both, to the extent the IRS desires. The decree may provide for a former spouse to seek restitution against the other, but it has no impact on the IRS.

The Court accepted the IRS previous concession to Mae of 28% and 41%. It did not have to observe the divorce decree and it did not.

Then the Court reviewed the penalties of over $5,000.

But there had been a fatal flaw,

You see, Mae and Sam had filed pro se with the Tax Court. Pro se means one is going in without professional representation (not exactly correct, but close enough). It happens with small tax cases. The paperwork to get to Court and the procedural rules once there are more lenient for small cases.

Sam and Mae had not included the penalty in their petition to the Court.

The Court did not have authority to review the penalties.

But it did provide us a clear example of the downside to representing oneself pro se.


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