When you get married, you are not only marrying the person you fell in love with, but also their financial debt. As far as the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is concerned, joint filers take joint responsibility for their taxes owed. If you don't want to pay your spouse's tax bill, then you should be aware of some of the precautions you can take to protect your money.
How It Works
Married taxpayers who file joint returns have what is commonly known as a "joint and several" tax liability. This means that both taxpayers are responsible for any taxes owed, both jointly and separately. If you do not owe a debt but your spouse does, then your entire joint refund will be taken by the IRS and applied to the past due taxes owed. Once the offset is applied to the tax owed, any remaining amount will be refunded to you and your spouse.
Before your refund is offset, you will receive a notice from the IRS advising you of the amount of the original refund as well as the amount of the offset. If you disagree with the amount, call the IRS at 800-829-1040.
To avoid having your refund offset to pay your spouse's back taxes, you may want to consider filing separate returns. With a married filing separate return, you and your spouse are only responsible for your own returns. There is no joint liability. However, keep in mind that separate returns do not allow for several credits and deductions, including the Earned Income Credit (EIC) or the Child and Dependent Care expenses credit, just to name a few. Also, the tax rate for married filing separate returns is generally higher than that of married filing joint returns.
If you've already filed a return and had your portion of the joint refund taken by the IRS, then you should file IRS Form 8379 to recover your portion of the refund. You can download Form 8379 from the IRS website or order it by calling 800-TAX-FORM. The processing time frame for Form 8379 is 11 weeks for forms submitted electronically with your electronic return and 14 weeks for those forms filed by paper. Do not confuse Form 8379, Request for Injured Spouse Relief, with Innocent Spouse Relief form 8857, which is usually filed to claim relief when one spouse claims false deductions or otherwise falsifies their return without the other spouse's approval.