When your new spouse has old tax problems

Marriage often has tax advantages. One of the little charms of being a relative newlywed may be looking forward to a tax refund or to a manageable tax bill.

That is typically when people realize they are what the Internal Revenue Service calls an “injured spouse.” Within the first year or two of a new marriage, they unexpectedly receive a tiny refund check or a whopping large tax bill.

Bad news from the IRS that is not your fault

If this happens to you, and you and your spouse filed a joint tax return, the cause might be that the Internal Revenue Service is keeping your money because of debts that your spouse owes.

You are married and filed jointly, after all, so the IRS can hold both of you responsible or either one of you solely responsible. You are “jointly and severally liable.”

The IRS can in some cases authorize creditors to skim money off your joint tax refunds, such as when your spouse has unpaid federal student loans, child support or state or federal taxes.

If you had nothing to do with the debt, typically because it belonged to your spouse before you were married and you did not know it existed, the debt has “injured” you financially.

The IRS has procedures for “Injured Spouse Relief”

The IRS has procedures that may help you keep this premarital debt separate. Of course, it can be frightening to ask the IRS for anything, but the IRS has seen it all.

Consider this. Courts sometimes declare a contract not legally valid if one signer lacked the facts needed to decide about signing.

If your marriage contract makes you owe taxes you did not know about when you signed it, you may have a right to not to pay those hidden taxes.

As always, some devils are in the details

You can get part of the refund only if you contributed to the earnings and are responsible for some of the taxes on the return for that year.

Also, there are separate forms for different situations. There is one for large debts your spouse will pay over multiple years, for example, and one if you failed to realize the problem a year too late.

Finally, there are tight time limits, so if you think any of this applies to you, act fast.