IRS Case Offers Joint Tax Return Lessons for Divorcing Couples

By Brett Snider, Esq. on May 15, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Divorcing couples may be a bit in the dark about how to deal with joint tax returns, and a little knowledge can go a long way.

That certainly was the case with Jason Alan Bruce and his ex-wife: Miscommunication over filing a joint federal tax return for their final year of marriage had both former spouses claiming their children as dependents on separate returns -- and got Jason summoned to Tax Court.

What lessons can you learn from this divorcing couple's IRS mix-up?

Lesson No. 1: Communication Is Key.

Even if you're having a fairly acrimonious divorce, it's important to keep lines of communication open to avoid doing something stupid with your taxes. Forbes reports that Bruce filed a joint tax return for him and his ex-wife's last year of marriage -- but she never told him she was filing a separate return for the same year.

Want to avoid spending large chunks of your life dealing with you and your ex's finances and the IRS? Communicate, even if it's only through a lawyer. Collaboration can make post-divorce life much sweeter.

Lesson No. 2: Don't File a Joint Tax Return Without Both Spouses' Review.

A joint return can still be valid even without one spouse reading it. As Forbes explains, unless a separate individual return is filed by either spouse, the IRS will consider the joint return tacitly consented to by both spouses.

Having both spouses look over a joint return before submitting it can allow the non-filing spouse to explore his or her options -- like considering whether to file separately.

Lesson No. 3: Decide Who Claims the Kid(s).

The easiest way to avoid IRS trouble in the future is for divorcing couples to write child-related tax breaks into their divorce settlement agreement. Through proper divorce mediation, you can reach an accord as to who will be the custodial parent for tax purposes, among other issues.

If you don't work these things out ahead of time, you may have a tax court peering into your family life to determine who gets what.

Lesson No. 4: Don't Freak Out (Too Much) About Tax Court.

If you do get slapped with some sort of IRS accuracy penalty due to a mix-up between you and your spouse, don't panic. A good tax attorney can help you sort out your legal arguments and hopefully help you avoid paying any penalties.

And luckily, that's how it ended for Mr. Bruce.

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