Innocent Spouse Tax Rules

innocent-spouse_LI-532x266 Innocent Spouse Tax Rules
Photo: Bruce Mars

Must one spouse pay the tax resulting from a fabrication or omission by another spouse on a jointly filed tax return? It depends. If the spouse qualifies, he or she may be able to avoid personal tax liability under the “innocent spouse” rules.

Joint filing status

Generally, married taxpayers benefit overall by filing a joint tax return on the federal level. This is particularly the case when one spouse earns significantly more than the other. Filing jointly may also help the couple maximize certain income tax deductions and credits.

But joint filing status comes with a catch. Each spouse is “jointly and severally” responsible for any tax, interest and penalties attributable to the return. And this liability continues to apply even if the couple gets a divorce or one spouse dies. In other words, the IRS may try to collect the full amount due from one spouse, even if all the income reported on the joint return was earned by the other spouse.

Basic rules

However, the tax law provides tax relief for an “innocent spouse.” Under these rules, one spouse may not be liable for any unpaid tax and penalties, despite having signed the joint return.

To determine eligibility for relief, the IRS imposes a set of common requirements. The spouses must have filed a joint return that has an understatement of tax, and that understatement must be attributable to one spouse’s erroneous items. For this purpose, “erroneous items” are defined as any deduction, credit or tax basis incorrectly stated on the return, as well as any income not reported.

From there, the other (“innocent”) spouse must establish that, at the time the joint return was signed, he or she didn’t know — or have reason to know — there was an understatement of tax. Finally, to qualify, the IRS needs to find that it would be unfair to hold one spouse liable for the understatement after considering all the facts and circumstances.

Additional notes

For many years, innocent spouse relief had to be requested within two years after the IRS first began its collection activity against a taxpayer. But, in 2011, the IRS announced that it would no longer apply the two-year limit on collection activities.

In addition, by law, when one spouse applies for innocent spouse relief, the IRS must contact the other spouse or former spouse. There are no exceptions even for victims of spousal abuse or domestic violence.

Help is available.

Historically, courts haven’t been particularly generous about upholding claims under the innocent spouse rules. State laws can also complicate matters. If you’re wondering whether you’d qualify for relief, please contact us for help.


Sidebar: What does the IRS consider?

The IRS considers “all facts and circumstances” in determining whether it would be inequitable to hold an “innocent” spouse liable for taxes due on a jointly filed tax return. One factor that may increase the likelihood of relief is that the taxes owed are clearly attributable to one spouse or an ex-spouse who filled out the errant return.

If one spouse was deserted during the marriage, or suffered abuse, it may also improve the chances that innocent spouse relief will be granted. In some cases, the IRS may examine the couple’s situation to determine whether the spouse applying for relief knew about the erroneous items.

Tax Break for Kid’s Camp

summer-camp_LI-532x266 Tax Break for Kid's Camp
Photo: Lonnie Jeffries

Among the many great challenges of parenthood is what to do with your kids when school lets out. Do you keep them at home and try to captivate their attention yourself or with the help of sitters? Or do you send them off to the wide variety of day camps now in operation? There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, but if you choose the latter option, you might qualify for a tax break!

Dollar-for-dollar savings

Day camp — but, to be clear, not overnight camp — is a qualified expense under the child and dependent care tax credit, which is worth 20 percent of qualifying expenses (more if your adjusted gross income is less than $43,000), subject to a cap. For 2019, the maximum expenses allowed for the credit are $3,000 for one qualifying child and $6,000 for two or more.

Remember that tax credits are particularly valuable because they reduce your tax liability dollar-for-dollar — $1 of tax credit saves you $1 of taxes. This differs from deductions, which simply reduce the amount of income subject to tax. For example, if you’re in the 24-percent tax bracket, $1 of deduction saves you only $0.24 of taxes. So, it’s important to take maximum advantage of the tax credits available to you.

Qualifying for the credit

A qualifying child is generally a dependent under age 13. (There’s no age limit if the dependent child is unable physically or mentally to care for him- or herself.) Special rules apply if the child’s parents are divorced or separated or if the parents live apart.

Eligible costs for care must be work-related. This means that the childcare is needed so that you can work or, if you’re currently unemployed, look for work.

If you participate in an employer-sponsored child and dependent care Flexible Spending Account (FSA), also sometimes referred to as a Dependent Care Assistance Program, you can’t use expenses paid from or reimbursed by the FSA to claim the credit.

Determining eligibility

Additional rules apply to the child and dependent care credit.

If you’re not sure whether you’re eligible, contact us. We can assist you in determining your eligibility for this credit and other tax breaks for parents.

Should you be worried about an IRS audit?

man-frustrated_LI Should you be worried about an IRS audit?

Now that you’ve likely filed your 2018 tax return, one troubling afterthought may come to mind: Could I get audited?

The mere notion strikes fear into most people’s hearts. And for good reason — under a worst-case scenario, an audit could take up lots of your time, create an enormous amount of stress and leave you with a hefty bill from the federal government in unpaid tax, penalties, and interest.

Now let’s take a deep breath. An audit can also be a rather routine process that results in zero additional liability or even a refund. What’s more, the IRS is performing audits much less frequently than it used to.

Basically, the higher your income and more complex your return, the greater the likelihood that it will be audited. The IRS uses something called a Discriminant Inventory Function (DIF) score to rate the potential for change in a return, based on past IRS experience with similar returns. The agency also uses an Unreported Income Discriminant Index Formula (UIDIF) score to rate each tax return’s potential to indicate unreported income.

If you happen to be a business owner, the IRS may subject your return to intensified scrutiny in years it decides to target a category that your company falls into. Examples might include sole proprietorships with many cash transactions or companies that rely heavily on independent contractors.

By and large, the answer to the question posed in our headline is: Probably not. The best way to prevent a targeted audit or prepare for one you can’t avoid is to get sound guidance from a CPA before filing your return every year.

Give us a call if you have questions or would like to review your return(s).

Business vs. Hobby: Tax Rules Have Changed

 

fishing_LI-532x266 Business vs. Hobby: Tax Rules Have Changed  If you generate income from a passion such as cooking, woodworking, raising animals — or anything else — beware of the tax implications. They’ll vary depending on whether the activity is treated as a hobby or a business.

The bottom line: The income generated by your activity is taxable. But different rules apply to how income and related expenses are reported.

Factors to consider

The IRS has identified several factors that should be considered when making the hobby vs. business distinction. The greater the extent to which these factors apply, the more likely your activity will be deemed a business.

For starters, in the event of an audit, the IRS will examine the time and effort you devote to the activity and whether you depend on income from the activity for your livelihood. Also, the IRS will likely view it as a business if any losses you’ve incurred are because of circumstances beyond your control, or they took place in what could be defined as the start-up phase of a company.

Profitability — past, present, and future — is also important. If you change your operational methods to improve profitability, and you can expect future profits from the appreciation of assets used in the activity, the IRS is more likely to view it as a business. The agency may also consider whether you’ve previously made a profit in similar activities. Also, the intent to make a profit is a key factor.

The IRS always stresses that the final determination will be based on all the relevant facts and circumstances related to your activity.

Changes under the TCJA

Under previous tax law, if the activity was deemed a hobby, you could still generally deduct ordinary and necessary expenses associated with it. But you had to deduct hobby expenses as miscellaneous itemized deduction items, so they could be written off only to the extent they exceeded 2% of adjusted gross income (AGI).

All of this has changed under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA). Beginning with the 2018 tax year and running through 2025, the TCJA eliminates write-offs for miscellaneous itemized deduction items previously subject to the 2% of AGI threshold.

Thus, if the activity is a hobby, you won’t be able to deduct expenses associated with it. However, you must still report all income from it. If, instead, the activity is considered a business, you can deduct the expenses associated with it. If the business activity results in a loss, you can deduct the loss from your other income in the same tax year, within certain limits.

An issue to address

Worried the IRS might recharacterize your business as a hobby?

Contact our office. We can help you address this issue on your 2019 return or assist you in perhaps filing an amended 2018 return, if appropriate.

Running your Personal Finances Like a Business

woman-money_LI-532x266 Running your Personal Finances Like a Business

Most individuals don’t regard themselves as businesses, trying to turn a profit and beat the competition. But, occasionally, it may help to look at your financial situation this way to determine where you might cut expenses and boost cash flow. Here are some tips.

Lay out your financials

Where an executive might reach for financial statements to get a read on the company’s standing, you can create or update a net worth statement. Essentially a monetary scorecard, a net worth statement helps you determine where you stand financially and whether you’re on track to meet your goals.

You can calculate your net worth by adding all your assets, including cash and cash equivalents, brokerage account balances, retirement funds, real estate, and other fixed assets and personal property. Then subtract your liabilities, including mortgages, personal loans, credit card balances and taxes due.

The result provides some important clues about where your money is going and how you might be able to trim spending and increase savings. Are you over-relying on credit cards with high interest rates? Could you cut back on food or entertainment costs?

Practice risk management

To maintain their companies’ financial health, business executives also practice risk management. You can do the same by first assessing compensation and benefits elections. A major life change — such as a marriage or birth — may require an update to your W-4 withholding allowances with your employer.

Unexpected medical costs can be a huge risk. Review your health insurance to ensure it’s providing the best value. Now might not be an ideal time to switch to a spouse’s plan but, if it’s a better deal, perhaps make a note to do so when you can. Also, if you have a Health Savings Account or Flexible Spending Account, make sure you’re using it to your full advantage.

Think about other insurance, too. Perhaps your home has increased in value, necessitating a corresponding increase in your homeowner’s coverage. Or maybe you no longer have enough life insurance to protect your growing family. Talk to your insurance professional to determine the right amount of coverage.

Finally, check your credit report. If you wait until something is obviously wrong, it may be too late to prevent significant damage. Federal law requires the three major credit reporting agencies to provide you with one free report per year.

Think about retirement

Business owners must think about succession planning. But even if you don’t own a company, you should think about life after employment.

If your employer allows you to adjust your retirement plan contributions during the year, consider boosting them to take full advantage of tax-deferred compounding and, if available, employer matching. Similarly, if you plan to make an IRA contribution this year, do so as early as possible to give your assets more time to grow.

Also, review your estate plan and, if necessary, update it. Financial priorities change over time, so make sure the beneficiary designations for your retirement accounts and insurance policies still match your wishes. Check your will or living trust to ensure no changes are necessary. And, if you’re looking to reduce the value of your taxable estate, remember that you can make $15,000 ($30,000 for married couples) in annual exclusion gifts per recipient this year without using up any lifetime exemption.

Get rolling

Some might say that the beginning of the year is the most important time for financial planning. Others might say it’s at the end of the year when you start preparing to file your tax return. In truth, the whole year is important. And right now, with the arrival of spring and the year well underway, is a perfect time to adjust objectives set a few months ago — and really get rolling.

Contact us for help.