I’ve been receiving more questions about this program offered by the IRS, so I figured it was time to dedicate an entire post to the subject. Please note that I am not a tax expert (nor do I want to be!!!). I am simply sharing my experience, summarizing the information from the IRS and pointing you in the right direction for further resources.
From my book:
I received a notice that I had a certified letter ready for pick-up. My stomach dropped, as I had been conditioned to certified letters signaling more money owed or another bomb ready to drop. When the postmistress placed the stocky envelope in my hands, she uttered an apology.
“Sorry. It’s from the IRS. Nobody likes to get those.”
I thanked her and moved to the side of the room bracing myself against the green tiled wall as I slid my finger under to the flap to break the seal.
“We have determined that you are eligible for Innocent Spouse Relief.”
I let out a sharp cry as I slid to the floor, grasping the stapled pages in both hands. The tears began, falling from my eyes that tracked that single line again and again. The postmistress looked up, concerned. Leaving her current customer, she lifted the hinged counter section, kneeled next me, and inquired about my well-being.
“I’m great,” I said through the sobs. “I got Innocent Spouse Relief. The IRS gave me the justice the courts never did.”
“That’s great, honey,” she replied, looking equal parts relieved and confused.
Hours went by before I was able to read more than that single sentence. There was a 90-day waiting period where Timothy would have a chance to contest before they would issue a check. I did not care. I was fixated on that single word, “Innocent.” After enduring the months of attacks by Timothy and his attorney, and internalizing some his lies, I felt such relief at the conclusion reached by a third party.
I had long since given up my faith in labels, but that simple declaration from the IRS freed me from bonds I was not aware ensnared me, releasing me in the way that I expected from the court ruling.
My tax problem was one of several bombs in those first few days. My first indication of a problem came in a thick envelope just days after I received the text. The letter was very threatening in tone and it was clear it was not the first notice. It was simply the first notice that he couldn’t intercept. This one stated that we owed almost $3,000 for taxes from 2007. $3,000 that I didn’t have. And, to make matters worse, he had taken all of the financial files with him as well as the computer that was used to prepare the taxes. I had to order my own tax returns from the IRS to try to figure out what happened.
I had neither the constitution nor resources to go to battle with the IRS at that point. I was simply struggling to survive. So, using money gifted from family, I sent them a check. Over the next few months, two more letters came in about two different years. I cut two more checks.
I was furious. At this point, I had received the returns and discovered that he made false deductions. $10,000 to charity??? I probably dropped some stuff off at Goodwill but I don’t think my old jeans and some video tapes were worth quite that much. He had always been the one to prepare our taxes (yes, I trusted him completely) and, with electronic filing, I didn’t even have to sign in the later years.
I looked at the thousands I sent to IRS up as simply more money he stole from me. I lived in fear of another audit and more money owed. I tried to find comfort in the fact that the legal divorce at lease promised me that there would be no new tax problems cropping up.
Months after the divorce was final, my dad called me with some news.
“I just heard about a program with the IRS, innocent spouse relief, that I think may help you. I’ll send you the link.”
I remember clicking that link, skimming the fact page it led me to and starting to shake. It felt too good to be true. At that point, I had lost all faith in the system. My ex never followed the divorce decree, leaving me with a house entering foreclosure. He was already showing signs of failing to meet the requirements of his felony charge for bigamy (there’s currently a warrant for him). And, finally, it looked like the IRS could possibly, maybe provide some justice. It was a long shot; the majority of applicants for relief are turned down. But I was going to give it my best shot.
I printed out Form 8857, Request for Innocent Spouse Relief. I had to chuckle when they asked me for his current location and contact information; he could have been anywhere from Georgia to hell – I had no idea and didn’t want to know. I completed the form as best I could. But I didn’t stop there. The form only provided a laughable three lines to explain the circumstances. I attached around forty additional pages of background story. Essentially, I was trying to get them to see the whole picture.
I assembled anything I could to help them understand what happened. I included the papers about his felony charge, emails from him that ensnared him in lies, reports from the police, the divorce decree (which indicated his liability to assume the tax debt) and evidence of his lack of participation in its demands. I even threw in his mug shot for a little flavor. I felt like an attorney assembling a case. Which I pretty much was. By the end, I complied a 4″ stack which I sent to the IRS in a box.
And then I waited. Periodically, I would receive letters that they were considering the case. Then, about six months later, I received the letter that stated relief would be granted. He had 90 days to contest it and he never did. I don’t even know if they ever found him. Over the next few months, I received checks refunding the extra tax that I had paid and now the debt is firmly on his shoulders.
A side note: Georgia also has a state income tax. The process with them – from the initial letter demanding payment to the final granting of relief – has run about two years behind the federal case. Luckily, I did not have to mail a box to the state; they simply required the letters of relief from the IRS. I’m not sure how the other states handle this, but I would expect it is much the same.
From the IRS website, you are eligible for innocent spouse relief if you meet all of the following conditions:
- You must have filed a joint return which has an understatement of tax;
- The understatement of tax must be due to erroneous items of your spouse;
- You must establish that at the time you signed the joint return, you did not know, and had no reason to know, that there was an understatement of tax;
- Taking into account all of the facts and circumstances, it would be unfair to hold you liable for the understatement of tax
Here’s the IRS list (with all of the if-thens that make you feel like you’re reading code!) that helps you determine your eligibility. Just reading it makes my head hurt.
You must also file within certain time limits (this used to be two years but has since been lengthened and made more variable depending upon type of relief requested. The IRS considers many factors in deciding whether to award relief. From what I call tell, they are looking for evidence that the petitioning spouse had no knowledge of the erroneous information, has made changes to remove themselves from the situation and was a victim in some way or incapacitated during the marriage.
Here are the factors that I believe helped my case:
- The divorce decree stated that he held the tax liability.
- He was charged with a felony (unrelated to taxes, but still indicative of fraud and deception).
- He demonstrated a history of deception, financial and otherwise.
- He removed the financial files from the house.
- I immediately paid the monies owed as soon as I found out about them.
- He prepared the taxes.
- I documented the emotional and financial impact that the divorce and associated problems had on me.
- I provided the IRS with multiple pieces of evidence for each claim as well as a thorough description of the situation.
- He failed to uphold the conditions of the divorce decree or the diversion granted in the criminal bigamy case.
Innocent spouse relief is not easy to obtain. Like anything with the IRS, there are confusing forms and rules that seem to be an endless shifting target. There are tax attorneys that feed on this and offer their services – at a steep price of course – to help you with your case. I never had that option nor do I expect most people requesting relief have those kinds of resources idly sitting around.
My suggestion? If you think you qualify, set aside a weekend to print the form and assemble your case. It may be time well spent. And, if you’re like me, receiving an official document that names you an “innocent spouse” can be worth more than the checks that follow.
To contact the Innocent Spouse Relief department:
PO Box 120053
Covington, KY 41012