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Innocent spouse relief, part 2: the role of a skilled tax attorney

Federal tax law recognizes that there are circumstances in which a taxpayer should not be held responsible for tax debt that arose during marriage. This recognition is reflected in relief from tax liability that is commonly called innocent spouse relief.

As we noted in the first part of this post, however, innocent spouse relief in its technical sense is only one of three types of relief that are potentially available to spouses or former spouses who filed joint tax returns.

In this part of the post, we will extend our discussion of innocent spouse relief to include separation of liability and equitable relief. We will also explain how a skilled tax attorney can help you seek appropriate relief.

Separation of liability refers to letting one person off the hook for additional taxes that became due after improper reporting on a joint return that was filed when a couple was married. If you are no longer married to the spouse with whom you filed that return, you can apply for relief from joint and several liability for the additional tax that has come due. You can also do this if you are separated or haven't lived together for a full year.

This type of relief only applies, however, if you had no actual knowledge of the aspect of the joint tax filing that resulted in the tax deficiency.

With both innocent spouse relief and separation of liability, the request for the relief generally has to be submitted within two years of the date when the IRS first began trying to collect the tax from the person requesting relief.

With requests for equitable relief, this time limitation does not apply. Equitable relief is broader than innocent spouse and separation of liability relief in other ways as well. It is based on the premise that there are certain circumstances in which it is not fair to hold someone responsible for the conduct of a spouse or former spouse that resulted in understated or unpaid taxes.

A knowledgeable tax lawyer can guide you through the process of seeking appropriate relief from tax debt that arose during your marriage. This begins with requesting the relief and documenting what happened during the marriage that affected tax filing, such as incidents of abuse or fraud. And it continues with negotiating with the IRS to resolve the issue.

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