Divorce and Taxes-Part 1

Did the title of this article grab your attention? Divorce and taxes are two subjects that can be pretty painful and gut wrenching on their own, but put the two together, and one may well want to run away and bury their head in the sand. To quote John Lennon, “living is easy with eyes closed”, but that won’t help get either a divorce or taxes behind you. Two words come to my mind in this situation; attorney and CPA.

I’m not an attorney, but being married to an attorney who spent a number of years practicing matrimonial law, I can tell you that you don’t want to go through the divorce process alone, and you need representation to make sure you’re not signing your rights away. Enough said on that; let’s talk about taxes.

When a couple is divorcing, there are all sorts of tax implications to think about, and this is why it’s imperative to engage a CPA for help. This is for your benefit, not for my job security! Similar to the paragraph above, you don’t want to make any tax mistakes, or give anything away, because you weren’t properly advised. Let’s look briefly at some tax things to think about, when going through the divorce process.

Filing Status-I’ve told clients for years that 99.9% of the time, ‘married filing jointly’ will produce a lower tax than the combined tax from two ‘married filing separately’ returns. A divorcing couple may not want to file jointly, since they’re probably already at the point of separating their finances, and don’t want the other to see what’s on a tax return. If one spouse is opposed to filing jointly, the other may have no choice but file separately. Another twist on this is the fact that a joint return means that both spouses are jointly and severally liable for any tax. What this means is that if a couple files jointly, divorces, and then a year later it’s determined that there’s more tax due, IRS can look to either spouse for payment of that tax. This is a major reason why many divorcing couples choose to file separately, i.e. to not be potentially responsible for the other’s tax.

Dependents/exemptions-How many people know divorced couples who have kids (I have two hands raised). Besides legal arguments over custody and child support, there’s the question of which spouse gets to claim the kids as dependents on their tax return. This is a question/issue not just for the year of divorce, but also for subsequent years. There are all sorts of rules and tests to determine who claims the dependents. This article would be way too long if I got into a detailed explanation, but let’s just say that generally the custodial parent would be entitled to claim the dependent/exemption, but there’s a lot behind the word “generally”.

Next week I’ll wrap up this discussion with a few other tax issues to keep in mind when going through a divorce. If you know somebody who’s going through a divorce (one of the most stressful life events), please pass this article along, and if you’ve heard of any divorce/tax “war stories”, please share them.

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