The IRS needs your tax forms by April 15, a daunting task for the average person. But for survivors of domestic violence, this obligation can bring an added level of panic.
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Abusers have been known to control everything, and that includes finances. Survivors who are separated from an abuser may not know anything about their joint finances—how much money or debt they have, where it’s being kept or invested, or how to access it. Survivors may be seeking refuge in a shelter with hardly more than the clothes on their back—who can think about a 1040EZ at a time like that?
- The IRS wants domestic violence survivors to know they have rights. Specifically, all taxpayers have the right to:
- File a separate return even if they’re married.
- Review the entire tax return before signing a joint return.
- Review supporting documents for a joint return.
- Refuse to sign a joint return.
- Request more time to file their tax return.
- Get copies of prior year tax returns from the IRS.
- Seek independent legal advice
Three Options to File
Licensed tax professional Beth Logan explains that married individuals have three options, depending on their situation. They can file as an MFJ, or married filing jointly, which usually results in a bigger tax return. The disadvantage is that the couple has to complete the return together. Or, there’s also an MFS, or married filing separately. This is often more expensive overall, says Logan, but in this case, individuals file on their own and each spouse is only responsible for their own taxes.
The third option is to file as HOH, or head of household, if eligible. Only one of the individuals in the marriage can claim this. The HOH needs to have lived apart from their spouse for at least the last six months of the year and have a dependent, typically a child, who lives with them more than half the year. The other spouse would then file MFS.
“I highly recommend that couples with issues file MFS or HOH, if they qualify. There are some family law judges that will say the couple has to file jointly but they actually cannot require it,” says Logan.
Forced to Sign
Some survivors may be pressured to file jointly with their abusive partner—another form of power and control or, more specifically, financial abuse. The abuser may force the survivor to sign a tax return that the survivor isn’t sure is correct or true.
“Signing a tax return is stating that you know and agree to all the information on the return,” warns Logan. “If you cannot confirm all the information on an MFJ return, then you should not sign it and therefore, you should not file jointly. No judge can force you to sign a return that you cannot confirm is correct.”
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Yet, of course, this still happens. Then what? Logan says there are two options after the fact: applying for innocent spouse relief or applying for an injured spouse allocation.
According to the IRS, an individual may qualify as an innocent spouse if they signed a joint return and weren’t aware that taxes were due, or the other spouse failed to report income or claimed deductions that weren’t true. In this case, the survivor would fill out Form 8857, request for innocent spouse relief.
Injured spouse allocations are funds that the survivor is owed for overpayment of taxes (aka, a refund), knowing that the refund will otherwise be applied in full to the abuser’s past-due federal debts. This may include previously unpaid child or spousal support, or state tax debt. To claim your portion separately, a survivor would file Form 8379.
If all of this sounds slightly confusing, you’re not alone. Logan says she helps clients with these processes, but they’re not easy. And affording a tax professional to help isn’t an option for all survivors. If you’re a survivor, consider reaching out to your local domestic violence hotline and asking about free or low-cost tax preparation assistance. You can also use this map on the IRS website to find a low-income taxpayer clinic near you that could help.
And make sure you’re asking about tax credits. See this list of nine popular tax credits available in the U.S. that may help you see extra money coming back to you, potentially money you can use to start a new path free from an abusive partner.
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