Divorced Couples Should Remain Economic Unit, Temporarily, Anyway

The IRS can disregard the divorce decree when it comes to who claims Junior on the tax return. And more.

Impoverishing One Impoverishes All

If at all possible, try to think of each other as an economic unit, at least until the divorce is final. You are right – and you do need to have your financial needs met in a fair and equitable fashion. However, when one party tries to grab all the tax benefits at the expense of the other, all may lose out – less money for the kids, more money for the lawyers.   

For instance, if Sharon refuses to sign a joint return while the divorce is in process and Greg makes more money, she may save $500 but he may lose $5,000. This may make Sharon happy, but may also make a settlement more elusive, drag out the proceedings and make it more difficult for Greg to provide for his share of any agreement.

A better way? Sharon agrees to file jointly, but in exchange Greg pays her the $500 she would have received had she filed separately.

Thinking as one unit often means continuing to file “married joint” until the divorce is final. Why? Married filing separate brings a higher (combined) tax bill and the loss of valuable tax benefits, especially related to kids and education. Deductions and dependents have to be allocated – no, the tax service will not let both of you claim Junior or the mortgage.  Own rental property? Married filing separate your maximum loss may be reduced – or zero.

That said, there are situations where a joint return is not advisable, or simply impossible. You may be suspicious of your spouse’s business reporting or wary that part of the refund will be diverted to pay her student loan debts. You may have such a disparity of incomes that the benefits of joint filing are reduced or eliminated. Maybe relations are so bad that you cannot manage the details of splitting a joint refund – or payment, so you forego it.

Document Your Non-Custodial Agreement

Who claims the child or children? Often couples will decide to alternate, even if one has actual physical custody – Sharon claims Junior this year, Greg takes him next year – and this is memorialized in the divorce agreement. In the eyes of the IRS, however, the divorce agreement is not sacrosanct and in case of dispute can be trumped by “facts on the ground.” What does this mean?

Next year arrives, they are divorced and Sharon is upset that Greg is behind on paying child support. She decides to claim Junior on her taxes. Greg goes by the agreement and claims Junior as well. The IRS disallows both deductions until it can determine who the “custodial parent” is.  Greg submits the divorce decree; Sharon submits documentation that Junior stayed with her “the majority of the nights.” A few years ago the IRS explained that it would side with the actual custodial parent, regardless of the divorce terms. Sharon wins.

How could Greg have prevented this travesty? After all, he negotiated and planned for claiming Junior at least half the time. At the time of settlement, he needed to have Sharon certify her release of the dependency exemption for those specific future years via IRS Form 8332, and then attach the signed form for that year to his tax return. Then she cannot override his exemption even if Junior was there 366 days. She has released her right to the exemption for that year.

Other Considerations

Divorce and the tax code – not to mention human relationships – are all exceedingly complex. Here are a few other issues to be aware of while you navigate this difficult process.

  1. Child support is not taxable to the recipient or a deduction for the payer. Alimony is taxable to the recipient and a deduction for the payer. But, child support is generally statutory – controlled by legal guidelines in each state.
  2. Are you married but living apart from your spouse for the last six months of the year? If you are supporting a dependent, you may be eligible for head of household status, which is far more beneficial than married filing separate.  However, very specific conditions must be met, and both parents may not claim the status for the same child.
  3. Negotiating for property ownership but thinking you may need to do a “short sale” down the road?  There can be adverse tax consequences if that happens – you could be taxed on the amount of the forgiven mortgage. There are protections in place to prevent this, but some of them are scheduled to expire at the end of 2012 and/or do not apply to a second home.
  4. Is your tax status changing? You may need to change your salary withholdings or estimated payments. You do not want to get caught by surprise on April 15 – and even if it’s a good surprise you very well might prefer that larger refund in your weekly paycheck.
  5. Think carefully about how your dependency deductions may impact applications for college financial aid. Colleges that rely solely on the government financial form (FAFSA) do not directly take into account the second parent’s income once you are divorced. Private schools and some public universities are more likely to utilize other financial forms as well, that do require disclosure of both parents’ income and assets.

Rich Streitfeld is a CPA and partner with Aaronson Lavoie Streitfeld Diaz and Company in Cranston, Rhode Island (www.alscpa.com). Rich can be reached at 401-223-0205, rich@alscpa.com or via his blog at www.peaceloveandbusinessplanning.com         

This article was originaly created for RI Divorce Mediation Center (www.RIDivorceMediationCenter.com)

Every situation is different and federal and state tax laws governing taxation, business, divorce and other matters are subject to change.  This article is presented exclusively for informational purposes and is not intended to substitute for obtaining tax, financial or legal advice from an accountant, lawyer or other business professional.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.


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