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Divorce and Taxes: Issue #5. Joint Tax Liability

Issues 1 through 4 all focus on the tax liabilities created post-divorce. But what about tax liability incurred during the marriage?

Issue #5. JOINT TAX LIABILITY: The Court has the power in a divorce case to assign both assets and liabilities, including tax liability incurred during the marriage. If there are joint tax returns filed during the marriage for which taxes are still owed, that liability is owed by both parties to the taxing authorities. The Court may assign that debt to one party by order or agreement, but that doesn't always satisfy the taxing authorities.

Unless you file an innocent spouse application with the IRS (and the IRS makes an innocent spouse determination in your favor), they will still consider a joint debt owed by both parties until satisfied. A probate court order allows you to collect against your former spouse but does not prevent the IRS from collecting against you. Therefore, if there are any assets available for the payment of tax debt at the time of divorce, paying the debt off immediately is recommended.

We also recommend including language in any settlement agreement to deal with the possibility of an audit that assigns debt on a joint return that was previously considered satisfied:

"For the years of the marriage (__________ to __________), if there is a deficiency assessed in connection with any joint federal or state income tax returns heretofore or hereafter filed, or if any other notice is received by either Party relating to any Federal or State tax, interest or penalty claim, the Party notified thereof shall forthwith notify the other Party immediately in writing. Each Party, on account of whose net income a deficiency is assessed, shall pay the amount ultimately determined to be due thereon with respect to his or her net income, together with interest and penalties, and shall pay as well any and all expenses that may be incurred if he or she shall decide to contest the assessment.

In the event that the deficiency is assessed with respect to joint income, each shall pay the deficiencies and expenses in the same proportion as each Party actually received the said gross income for the calendar year in which the deficiencies and expenses are assessed. For purposes of this EXHIBIT “gross income” shall be defined in accordance with the applicable provisions of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 and in accordance with the applicable provisions of the Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines.

Each Party shall keep the other fully informed of any and all steps taken by him or her with respect to any deficiency assessment. The Party whose actions are responsible for the deficiency, if any, shall in all respects indemnify the other against and hold him or her harmless from any deficiency assessment or tax lien arising out of any joint return heretofore or hereafter filed by the Parties, as well as any damages and expenses whatsoever made in connection therewith including reasonable attorney's fees and costs."

Click here to read Divorce and Taxes: Issue #6. Same Sex Marriages.


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