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What is innocent spouse relief? Part 1: the 3 types of relief

If your spouse or former spouse controlled the marital finances, it may not be fair to hold you responsible for tax liability incurred during the marriage. After all, he or she may have committed errors or engaged in fraudulent or otherwise questionable conduct that you had no reason to know about or were in no position to stop.

U.S. tax law recognizes this, and the relief from tax liability that is available is generally referred to as innocent spouse relief.

In more precise terms, however, there are actually three types of relief from tax liability potentially available for spouses or former spouses. Only one of these three is formally called innocent spouse relief.

In this two-post, we will explain what the three types of relief are. We will also describe the key differences between them.

The first type of relief for tax liability on a joint return is innocent spouse relief, in the technical sense of that term under section 6015(b) of the Internal Revenue Code. The other two types of relief are separation of liability and equitable relief.

Innocent spouse relief is a way to get out from under tax you owe due to your spouse's errors or fraudulent conduct. This could involve failure to report income, underreporting income, or taking improper tax deductions or credits.

There are however, several conditions that you will have to meet to qualify for innocent spouse relief. For example, you will have to show that you neither knew nor should have known of the understatement of tax on the joint return you signed.

There are also time limitations on when you can seek innocent spouse relief.

In part two of this post, we will discuss separation of liability and equitable relief. We will also explain the role that a knowledgeable tax attorney can play in helping you pursue the form of tax relief that makes the most sense for your specific situation.

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