Am I Liable for My Spouse’s Tax Debt? | 10 Tax Questions to Ask BEFORE You Say “I Do”

June 7, 2023


There’s nothing as certain and enduring as true love… except for the federal government and your tax obligations to them.

The pitfalls of future joint tax returns and potential loss of tax benefits and tax refunds are probably somewhere near the bottom of the list of concerns for couples heading to the altar; however, as tax professionals who specialize in IRS debt relief, we know that a potential spouse’s standing on the federal government’s registry for back taxes is more important than your registry for linens and tableware.

We’ve seen untold numbers of clients discover after saying “I do” that their new spouse owes back taxes, and the amount owed and financial or even criminal ramifications of such news affects more than just their bank account.

Learning about a spouse’s debt AFTER committing to a lifetime together can be detrimental to the marriage and completely derail plans for future children, hopes for homeownership, and even squash potential business.

We’ve created an overview of what you should know about your future spouse in an effort to help clients avoid becoming an unsuspecting innocent spouse and having to ask one of the most troubling questions…

“If My Husband Owes Taxes, Do They Come After Me?…”

The long and short of the answer to this is that yes, your marriage status absolutely affects your liability, which is why it’s imperative to learn about your potential spouse’s tax debts BEFORE you file a joint tax return.

Let’s take a look at what you need to know about what your potential spouse owes the IRS BEFORE you walk down the aisle or select married filing jointly status that will help you create a more stable foundation and decrease the likelihood of having a divorce decree later.

10 Tax Questions to Ask BEFORE You Say “I Do”

  1. Has my partner filed all of their required tax returns?
  2. Does my partner owe back taxes?
  3. Is bankruptcy my partner’s solution to tax debt incurred?
  4. Does my partner have tax liens?
  5. Will I receive my tax refund on our married filing joint return?
  6. Should we have joint bank accounts?
  7. Are my retirement accounts like a 401k or IRA at risk?
  8. Is my partner self-employed?
  9. What is my partner’s audit risk?
  10. Does my partner have any unreported prior income?

Has my partner filed all of their required tax returns?

Did you know that failing to file a tax return is a criminal offense?

We’re not just talking about loss of future tax refunds here, but an actual criminal offense.

In addition to the criminal charges associated with failure to file a tax return, there are potential unknown debts, interest, and penalties which will only become known to you once your partner is forced to file by IRS.

Marriage and a married filing jointly status are not situations into which you want to go blindly, and doing so can have disastrous ramifications for your future together.

Does my partner owe back taxes?

You probably have an idea of what liabilities your partner owes. It’s common to ask whether your future spouse has a car note, what their current mortgage is, and calculate potential bills you two will tackle as a married team.

Do you know, though, if your future spouse’s back taxes are included in your financial plans together?

Financial advisors and prudent parents will encourage couples to discuss their debt prior to marriage, and we’re here to remind you that the conversation should also include if your future spouse owes back taxes.

It might sound like an awkward or unnecessary conversation to have, but you should know ahead of a wedding the amount of delinquent tax debt your potential spouse is carrying, and it’s even more involved than just the dollar amount of your future spouse’s tax debt that should pique your interest.

Even more important than the amount listed next to your potential spouse’s tax is what type of tax debt it is.

Federal Tax debt, State Tax debt or Payroll Tax debt… all of them carry penalties and have different implications for one spouse or both, depending on whether you are in a separate property state or a community property state, the latter being more complicated.

Similar to IRS and the federal government, state taxing authorities are able to seize bank accounts, garnish income and lien/levy real property and other assets to recoup penalties and back taxes.

State taxing authorities are also able to suspend or refuse renewal of your drivers license or state issued professional licenses for outstanding tax debt. Even if your partner’s prior debt doesn’t affect you financially, their ability to obtain necessary documents and permits to carry out life together is a factor you need to consider.

More serious than a lack of state issued documents is the result of back payroll taxes.
If your potential spouse is self employed and owes payroll tax debt or has failed to file payroll tax returns, you should seriously consider seeking professional help to resolve the payroll tax issues before taking another step together legally and financially.

Payroll tax debt is most aggressively pursued by the federal government and most often charged criminally, so you may want to avoid this situation altogether. There are many ways to request relief from the aggressive collection tactics of the IRS, and a Tax Relief Specialist can help you get out from under that – more on that later!

Is bankruptcy my partner’s solution to tax debt incurred?

We mentioned forms of reprieve from tax debt.

One relief option for couples dealing with delinquent tax debt is to file a personal bankruptcy. This is a form of liability relief that can help taxpayers restructure their IRS debt, but this option comes with a serious warning: put off the nuptials until AFTER your future spouse’s bankruptcy case is closed.

Does my partner have tax liens?

If your spouse has any delinquent tax debt, there is a very good chance that the taxing authority has filed or will be filing a tax lien. Even if the tax debt is separate, the tax lien attaches to your jointly-owned real property, such as the family home or a potential future home.

It is possible to purchase properties with a tax lien, but the options are not favorable and add a lot of stress to an already hectic process. Ask the hard-hitting questions about liens when considering plans with your future spouse.

Will I receive my tax refund on our married filing joint return?

“What happened to my tax refund!?”

We’ve heard that a time or two. Refunds claimed on married filing jointly returns will be held and applied to your spouse’s tax debt even if it is YOUR refund and you had nothing to do with the IRS debt he or she owes. This will continue every year until the delinquent tax debt is resolved in full, so any type of tax refund you were counting on will stay in the pocket of the federal government.

Should we have joint bank accounts?

So, you’re getting married, planning a wedding together, and have taken steps to pay for your big day as a couple – the only logical solution is a joint bank account in which you can both deposit money to use for these upcoming expenses… right?


This solution for the future Mr. & Mrs. could mean levies and seizures of your nest egg.

If your partner is deep enough into the forced collection process that results after failure to file and pay, joint bank accounts are at risk of seizure and levy.

IRS can freeze your joint account and levy the total amount held up to the delinquent tax debt owed by your partner, including penalties and interest. You will probably want to avoid attaching your debt-heavy partner’s SSN to your bank account.

Are my retirement accounts like a 401k or IRA at risk?

Even though IRS does have legal authority to levy a retirement account, it’s been our experience that they are not so inclined to do it. Your retirement account, however, does affect your partner’s resolution options after you are married and can possibly eliminate those most favorable.

This is a bit of a deeper conversation to have after all of your partner’s tax issues are uncovered.

Is my partner self-employed?

Did you know…

Taxpayers who are self-employed are required to pay quarterly estimated tax deposits. Period.

We see self-employed taxpayers who have started a business without appropriate professional guidance fall prey to these requirements. Often, these self-employed taxpayers are unaware of quarterly tax deposit requirements and don’t find out about it for years.

By that time, the issue has snowballed into a serious problem.

Even more importantly for self-employed taxpayers are payroll tax compliance issues. It’s worth mentioning again: if your future spouse is self employed and has employees, there are federal and state payroll tax returns to file and taxes to pay. If done improperly or not at all, the business owner is personally liable for the unpaid tax debt.

Personally liable means your personal life together…

What is my partner’s audit risk?

Everyone knows to fear the words IRS audit, and there’s a way to assess risk!

The algorithm for selecting a taxpayer for audit is a highly guarded secret by IRS; however, Tax Crisis Rescue has access to statistics that allow us to make inferences about how likely a taxpayer is to be audited, based on the types of income, deductions, form and schedules filed.

If your future spouse is a high audit risk, then your jointly filed return is similarly at risk. To mitigate the risk, your return must be properly prepared with appropriately documented substantiation by a qualified and credentialed professional.

Does my partner have any unreported prior income?

Most folks know how much their partner earns – but it’s also important to know what your future spouse earned. Past-tense.

Any unreported income on a prior year’s return is a substantial potential risk that could lead to your seeking innocent spouse relief later on.

The tax debt from prior income in addition to several layers of penalties and interest on this type of omission is punitive. You need to know about this type of debt ahead of time so it can be dealt with responsibly. If you wait until the IRS gets around to catching up with you, the issue is much more difficult to resolve.

So how do you figure out if there are any skeletons in your future spouse’s closet?

For the right tax professional, this answer is easier and cheaper than you may think, and far less headache and heartache than finding out later.

Tax Crisis Rescue can perform a tax compliance checkup on both of your IRS accounts. The compliance checkup uncovers all of these issues and more.

It’s easy. Once you authorize us to access your account, we use specialized practitioners’ software along with our e-services access to IRS to extract all transcript data IRS has on your accounts.

We then compile the data into a meaningful report format that allows us to easily identify any non-compliance issues you might be facing. If any are discovered, we can then develop a strategy to completely resolve the issues once and for all so you can continue planning and building your lives together – free from fear and worry over IRS debt.

Limited-Time Special Price Offer on Comprehensive Compliance Checkup for Two

For a limited time, now through November 30, 2022, we are offering a Comprehensive Compliance Checkup for Two at an unbeatable price of $250, which is $500 savings.

One more thing to help you decide on cleaning out your closet before saying “I do,” is that these tax compliance checkup usually will pay for itself.

How so:

The software we use identifies first time penalty abatement opportunities dating back over 20 years. If one year you or your partner were assessed a failure to file or failure to pay penalty and the prior 3 tax years are free of these penalties, you can ask for the penalty to be abated and the abatement will be granted based upon your clean record.

The penalty abatements can result in additional refunds or offset taxes owed. You only get the penalty abated if you ask for it, though, so it’s important to undergo the comprehensive assessment.

In the past week, we have successfully abated penalties for 3 such taxpayers resulting in total savings of $45,000.

The Comprehensive Compliance Checkup for Two also identifies any recoverable money left behind on prior years. We recently had one client who was a long-time self-filer, unaware that he had a 20,000-dollar credit on tax year 1998, and we were able to recover the funds and have them applied to his current year tax liability. This is not typical, but you can only know for sure if we take a look.

Reach out to us to learn more about the tax debt risks you could be facing, options to structure relief, and how to best plan for a successful future together – without the IRS interfering with your happily ever after.