Now, let’s see if I can help you stay together.
One of the biggest problems newlyweds face is dealing with money—especially today, when couples are getting married later in life and each person has established his or her own habits and relationship with money. It’s hard to relinquish total control, to learn new habits, to reveal your bad financial habits, or to admit that you’ve been excessively tightfisted.
When it comes to filing tax returns together, it’s definitely tell-all time.
Here are a few tips to help you deal with the tax minefield you’re about to navigate. (If you’re not yet married but soon will be, check out these pre-marriage tax tips.)
1. You’re responsible for your taxes as a couple. When you file a joint tax return, you are each 100 percent responsible for the truth of the information in that tax return. And if there is a balance due, you are each 100 percent liable for that entire balance, even if only one of you caused it. If you get divorced (heaven forbid!), your wages could be garnished to pay your now ex-spouse’s taxes.
This becomes a particular concern when one of you has a job and the other has his or her own business. If you have any doubts about the quality of your spouse’s bookkeeping, if you are concerned that your spouse won’t correctly report income, or if your spouse will owe a large balance due that he or she cannot pay when filing taxes, consider filing separate tax returns. You will each pay a little bit more, but each of you will only be responsible for your own tax burden.
A joint tax return also means that if an IRS audit determines that one spouse has substantial unreported income, the other spouse will also be held accountable for those additional taxes. There are innocent spouse protections (Form 8857), but the innocence is hard to prove and it can take a year—or several—for the IRS to agree and stop the garnishing the innocent spouse’s wages and levying his or her bank accounts.
2. You can protect your tax refund if your spouse owes money. Speaking of garnishing, it’s possible that the IRS is withholding your spouse’s tax refunds. The IRS acts as a collection agency for state tax agencies, Social Security, social services (deadbeat parent debts), student loans, and several other entities.
If your spouse owes money and his or her tax refunds are being withheld, you can protect your own refunds by including the Injured Spouse form (Form 8379) with the joint tax return. (If you aren’t due a refund, there’s no need for the added complication of this form.) This doesn’t prevent the IRS from withholding the refunds, but it does protect your share.
Alternatively, you can reduce your withholding so that it only covers your own tax liability.
3. You will need to reevaluate your IRA contributions. If your spouse has an employer-sponsored retirement plan, you might no longer be able to make a deductible contribution to your own IRA. Read the limits here—they are based on income levels.
You might still be able to make an IRA contribution, but it won’t be deductible. If you contribute to an IRA, be sure to track the contributions. This is your basis, and you won’t be taxed on it when you draw out the money in retirement.
4. Your personal information will need updating. If you’re changing your name, remember to register the change with the Social Security Administration before filing your first joint tax return. In addition, don’t switch off with your partner each year by taking turns being the taxpayer and spouse on the tax return. One of you should put your name first and keep it that way every year. Don’t confuse the poor IRS computer.
With all this in mind, now is the time to sit down and have that financial chat with your new spouse.
Eva Rosenberg, EA is the publisher of TaxMama.com ®, where your tax questions are answered. She is the author of several books and ebooks, including Small Business Taxes Made Easy. Eva teaches a tax pro course at IRSExams.com and tax courses you might enjoy at http://www.cpelink.com/teamtaxmama.