A joint obligation

For couples, tax preparation should involve more than just a signature.

Every April 15, Helga Hayse could set her watch by her husband's schedule. At 9 p.m. he would dash into the house with the tax return he'd just picked up from his accountant. Then he would speak those three little words appropriate to the season: "Sign here, honey."

"There were all these forms to sign," recalls Ms. Hayse, of San Mateo, Calif., now a widow. "He would tell me that the main post office was open till midnight. There was no time to look it over. Even if there had been, I didn't know what it meant."

It's a domestic scene being repeated countless times around the country these days as taxpayers calculate what they owe Uncle Sam. The situation also occurs in reverse, with husbands being asked to sign the returns their wives have prepared.

Either way, sharing tax information is an occasion when silence is definitely not golden and ignorance is not bliss. Although Hayse trusted her husband, she came to realize that signing without reading could have serious consequences.

"Whether the return is prepared by your spouse or an accountant, once you sign the return, you are attesting that you understand and agree that the information as stated on the return is accurate," she says. "However, a closer look might show that your spouse has more income than you thought. You might find an IRA or a Keogh plan that you didn't know about. Perhaps there is a business partnership you didn't know about."

Hayse adds, "What you don't want is to find out after a separation, divorce, or death that you owe money for taxes."

When Yahoo Finance conducted an online poll recently, 36 percent of respondents said they had cheated on their taxes, says Chris Jones, director of programming for Yahoo Finance. "That raises a question: Did their spouses know? If I were playing this scenario out in my head, I would assume they didn't."

Yet most tax filers do not deliberately conceal information, Mr. Jones adds. "In most cases, errors are going to come about because of confusion, because the tax code is complicated stuff. That makes it all the more important for spouses to be vigilant."

Eva Rosenberg, a tax specialist and publisher of TaxMama.com, sees both men and women being penalized by failing to read their tax returns before signing. One woman, for example, learned that she owed $30,000 in unpaid taxes after divorcing her husband, who just happened to be a CPA. The IRS attached her refunds and wages to pay those taxes. For seven years, the woman hired attorneys and CPAs, trying to get out from under the tax burden about which she knew nothing.

When she sought Ms. Rosenberg's help, Rosenberg noticed a discrepancy between the woman's actual signature and the one appearing on the tax forms. She asked her, "Did you sign this return? That doesn't look like your signature." Nobody had noticed that her husband had forged her name.

"In order for you to be responsible for the balance due on a tax return, you have to be the one who signed the return," Rosenberg explains. After the woman filed a separate tax return, she was freed from the debt.

Under some circumstances, a spouse who has been denied information about taxes can file an "innocent spouse" claim with the Internal Revenue Service. It allows divorced and separated spouses to claim responsibility only for their individual share of IRS debt. Not everyone qualifies.

"Innocent spouse claims were never easy, but they've become a little more difficult," says Sharyn Sooho, a family law attorney in Newton, Mass.

Calling it a "very subjective concept," William Abrams, a Los Angeles attorney, says. "The party claiming the innocent spouse relief has a pretty hefty burden to show that they had nothing to do with it. Just saying, 'I didn't read the return,' that's not innocence."

Rosenberg adds her own caution: "If you have an education and you're clearly intelligent, the IRS is going to look at that. Why didn't you know that some income wasn't reported, or that there is a balance due? Why aren't you paying attention?"

Even when couples come to her office on tax matters, often only one pays attention. "The other one is in 'etherland' - doesn't have a clue and isn't interested. Sometimes it's the husband, sometimes the wife. This abdication of responsibility is not healthy."

In the financial seminars Hayse conducts for women, she encourages participants to to learn about taxes. A husband, she says, "isn't necessarily trying to hide things from you by doing the taxes. He does them because you don't want to or you think it's his job." If an accountant prepares a couple's joint return, she urges both to attend the meeting.

Jones encourages open, honest conversations about taxes. "Better yet, do your taxes together. If you're using tax-preparation software, it's actually pretty easy to do it together. The online stuff is better than it's ever been before."

One electronic form requires a PIN number for each signer. Another form requires a filer's actual signature.

Hayse, author of the forthcoming book, " 'Don't Worry About a Thing, Dear': Why Women Need Financial Intimacy," emphasizes that a cosigner is entitled to ask for a copy of whatever he or she is expected to sign - loan papers, contracts for services or purchases, and tax returns. Both parties need access to records.

Taxpayers with concerns about joint returns do have options, Ms. Sooho notes. "Even if your spouse says, 'Just sign this, but don't look,' you can write to the IRS. You're entitled to get a copy from them. If you decide not to file a joint return because you're afraid your spouse is up to something, you must file a 'married, filing separately' form."

Most well-written divorce decrees state how tax liabilities will be apportioned after the divorce, says Linda Leitz, a financial adviser in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Even for those who are happily married, taxes can be a source of contention. "When one spouse finds that a major task like tax preparation has been done poorly, it can weaken trust," Mrs. Leitz says. Many couples decide to have their taxes done professionally, even though both are capable. "They'd rather know an expert has signed off on the job, and that they can blame the expert instead of each other if a problem surfaces."

For those mystified by a tax form, Rosenberg offers reassurance. "It's not as indecipherable as you might think. I find that every time someone looks at a return and starts asking questions, the question pinpoints something wrong. When it's confusing, it's usually because there's an error on the return. It's not because you're dumb. Don't hesitate to ask."

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