Horror stories about the IRS are intimidating enough to leave you terrified of checking the wrong box on your tax returns. The reality, though, is that the IRS gives taxpayers plenty of notice before taking adverse action against them. It also limits the liability of spouses for one another's tax debt, but your liability depends on your filing status and when the back taxes were accrued.
Filing Status and Back Taxes
You're only liable for your husband's tax debts if you filed your taxes jointly. If you filed separately, you should be in the clear. However, a garnishment still can affect you indirectly. The IRS can garnish your husband's wages, which can reduce your total household income. If you file jointly in the future, the IRS may withhold your refund to pay the taxes your spouse owes. If you did file jointly, though, both of your wages can be garnished.
Taxes Prior to Marriage
If your husband ran up a tax bill before you got married, you're in luck. No matter what your filing status is, you won't be liable for your husband's previous taxes -- even though paying them can cut into your household income. It's wise to avoid filing jointly until the taxes are paid off, though, because your refund could be withheld to pay the money your husband owed before you got married.
Wage Garnishment Process
Most creditors have to get a court order before they can garnish your wages, but the IRS is an exception. This doesn't mean you'll be surprised by a garnishment, though. The government will notify you that you owe back taxes and you'll typically receive several notices demanding payment. If you ignore the notices without offering a settlement or arranging a payment plan, you or your husband's wages can then be garnished.
Limitations on Garnishments
Instead of placing a limit on the amount that can be garnished, the IRS establishes minimum amounts that have to be left behind in each paycheck. The amount depends on your filing status, how frequently you are paid and how much you owe, as the IRS might not choose to garnish the maximum amount it can. If you are married filing separately with one exemption, for example, and paid weekly, the IRS has to leave $195.19 of each paycheck untouched.
- Nolo.com: Can the IRS Garnish My Wages for Taxes?
- IRS.gov: Topic 205 - Innocent Spouse Relief (Including Separation of Liability and Equitable Relief)
- Money Crashers: Married Filing Taxes Jointly vs. Married Filing Separately – Which Is Better?
- Frank C. Carnahan Attorney at Law: What if One Spouse Owes Taxes But the Other Doesn't?
Van Thompson is an attorney and writer. A former martial arts instructor, he holds bachelor's degrees in music and computer science from Westchester University, and a juris doctor from Georgia State University. He is the recipient of numerous writing awards, including a 2009 CALI Legal Writing Award.