Wednesday, February 27, 2013
Every time spouses sign joint returns, they knowingly or not accept joint and several liability. Therefore, either spouse may be held liable for all of the tax due on the joint return. Joint and several liability’s more efficient tax collection procedure may conflict with a spouse’s equitable claims to have innocently signed the return while being lied to, abused, or manipulated. The question for Congress is how to balance these competing demands. Innocent spouse relief provides some tax relief for spouses Congress does not believe should be jointly and severally liable. Innocent spouse relief also offers an opportunity to explore how the government views married women, as wives have always composed the lion share of seekers and recipients of innocent spouse relief. The relief currently provided is both over- and under-inclusive by not offering relief to all spouses or former spouses who are unable to assess the validity of their returns but offering relief to some who both knew and helped orchestrate the tax evasion. This paper argues that, instead of existing innocent spouse relief, the IRS should respect joint filers’ agency when signing joint returns and grant relief only when a joint filer was unable to exercise that agency. In the event that a spouse is coerced into signing the return, relief needs to be speedier and less burdensome in application than under today’s law to increase the equity of the tax system and reduce the administrative costs on both the taxpayer and the government.