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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Divorce and Taxes

Divorce often presents tax issues that need to be resolved, including those relating to property and debt, spousal maintenance, child support and sometimes previously filed (or yet to be filed) tax returns. Because of the complexity and high stakes associated with divorce and taxes, this area is one in which you should try to keep the communication open and the emotions out. It will only benefit Uncle Sam if you file separate tax returns out of spite when filing jointly is beneficial. Do not assume that you will be able to claim all deductions and exemptions. That will only lead to fines, penalties and audits if you are wrong. Make sure that all tax-related issues are settled and clearly stated in your Property Settlement Agreement and/or Decree and Order of Child Support. Several issues arise related to divorce and taxes:

1. Filing Status: How are you going to file your taxes? Determine the most financially feasible way to file. Typically, filing a Married Joint Return will result in the lowest taxes. Hint: Do not look at a joint return as any kind of “attachment” to your spouse; this decision is strictly financial. If you are divorced before December 31 of the tax year, you cannot file a joint return for that year.

2. If you do sign a joint return, the law holds both you and your spouse responsible for the entire tax liability. This is called joint and several liability. Joint and several liability applies not only to the tax liability you show on the return but also to any additional tax liability the IRS determines to be due, even if the additional tax is due to income, deductions, or credits of your spouse or former spouse. You remain jointly and severally liable for the taxes, and the IRS can still collect from you, even if you later divorce and the divorce decree states that your former spouse will be solely responsible for the tax obligation. If you are going to do a joint return after separation, you should use a CPA or qualified tax preparer to avoid any mistakes or problems.

3. If you have wrongfully been held responsible for your spouse’s obligation, you can claim that you are an “innocent spouse” and file the appropriate forms with the IRS. Here, you argue that you did not know, and had no reason to know about any under reporting of income or other wrongdoing associated with the filing of the return and therefore should not be held responsible for paying any additional taxes, penalties or interest due.

4. Exemptions: You may claim a child that does not live with you only if it is stated in your Order of Child Support or if mutually agreed upon. Allocation of the tax dependency exemption may be modified by the court upon the filing of a Petition to Modify by either party. If it can be shown that it would be in the best interest of the child for the non-residential parent to claim the child as a tax dependency exemption, the court can award the exemption to the non-residential parent. Where there is more than one child of the marriage and one of the parties has a small amount of income, the tax dependency exemption and child tax credit may not be taken advantage of if that party claims all of the children. At certain income levels, claiming more than one child may not increase the tax refund of the lesser earning parent, whereas the party with greater income could save thousands of dollars each year if the tax dependency exemptions are properly allocated. For this reason, allocation of the tax dependency exemptions is a very important part of every divorce with minor children.

5. Liabilities and Refunds: Taxes owed, or refunds received for time periods before the separation, are usually treated as “community” assets/liabilities and are therefore, split equitably between the parties. In the heat of the moment, some spouses will intercept a tax refund and cash it without the other’s knowledge. All funds must be accounted for and it is likely that if a spouse engages in this behavior their share of the final property settlement will be reduced.

6. Child Support and Maintenance: Child support is not considered income for the receiving parent and is not deductible for tax purposes for the paying parent. Spousal maintenance is considered income for the receiving parent (they must pay income taxes on the money received), and is tax deductible for the paying parent.

The Renton law firm of Mogren, Glessner & Roti, represents clients in a variety of family law cases. Please visit our web page at Seattle Divorce Lawyers for more information.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Columbia Gorge Half Marathon

Sunday I ran the Columbia Gorge Half Marathon (13.1 miles) with 2 friends. It rained at the start but then stopped. It was a beautiful route on the old highway, looking down on the Columbia River and the gorge. We ran much faster than anticipated, and amazingly I finished 2nd in my age catagory.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Dividing a Business Interest

When one party to a divorce is either self employed or has an ownership interest in a business, there are typically two issue that arise. The first, as discussed in my prior blog entry, is determining that persons actual income for child support and/or spousal maintenance purposes. The second issue, which is the topic of this entry, is to determine the actual value of the business interest for property division purposes.

A business is can not only be a source of income, it is also an asset to be divided. Like any other asset (house, retirement, car, investment, etc.), before we award the asset to one party or the other, we need to know its value.

In many small businesses, especially sole proprietorships with no employees, it it is a service business, it may have no value other than as a job or source of income. There may be the value of the assets, equipment, inventory and accounts receivable, but there is no value of the business itself that would be bought or sold by a third party. Therefore there is no additional value to be considered in the divorce in dividing assets. No one would pay money to purchase your [plumbing, contractor, hair cutting, etc.] business, when they could just open up their own business.

In many other businesses, the business is more than just a job, it is an ongoing concern that would have value to a third party who would pay money to purchase it. If the owner died, the business could still continue and flourish. In these cases, the issue becomes, how do we establish a value. The best way to determine the value of the business is to hire a business appraiser. They are professionals who have expertise in valuing businesses. They will look at the tax returns and bookkeeping records of the business, the type of business and its future, the value of similar businesses, and other relevant factors to determine its value.

Once we have determined a value of the business, it can be added to the spreadsheet to determine a fair and equitable division of all of the assets.

The Renton law firm of Mogren, Glessner & Roti, represents clients in a variety of family law cases. Please visit our web page at Seattle Divorce Lawyers for more information.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Income of a Self Employed Party

When one party is either self-employed or has an ownership interest in a business, there are two issues that arise in a divorce case. The first is the parties actual income for child support and spousal maintenance purposes, and the second is the value of the business interest for property division purposes.

Frequently it is critical to determine the income issue first, as it is not uncommon to go to court within a few weeks of filing to determine child support and spousal maintenance in temporary orders. Support is primarily based upon the need vs. ability to pay, and the parties income is a critical component to the ability to pay.

It is not uncommon for a self employed person to understate their income. This can be done in a number of ways, including:

  • Payment of personal expenses from the business (such as auto expenses, phone and other utility bills, insurances, entertainment, food, etc.).

  • Unreported income like cash payments.

  • Money paid from the business to someone else (like parents, children, girlfriends, etc.) for services never rendered, that may eventually be given back.

It is critical to get as much information and documentation as soon as possible. It the client has access to business records, this is quickest and least expensive method. If not, the information can be subpoenaed (income statements, balance sheets, statement of accounts, tax returns, check registers, bank statements, etc.). Also the personal bank records can show unaccounted for deposits (presumably unreported income). Loan and credit card applications are also useful, as the parties state under oath what their income is (and for loan purposes, they tend to overstate the income while for court purposes they will understate their income).

Determining the income of a self employed person can be difficult, because they frequently have a lifetime pattern of hiding their income. There is a wealth of information contained within the financial documents that an experienced business mind can help organize and asses. If your spouse is self employed and has potentially hidden their income, you should consider discussing your case with an experienced family law attorney.

In my next post, I will talk about small business valuation.

The Renton law firm of Mogren, Glessner & Roti, represents clients in a variety of family law cases. Please visit our web page at Renton Divorce Lawyers for more information.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Equal vs. Equitable

In Washington, the legal standard for the division of property and debts is not to divide things equally. At first glace, you might think that it should be. However, the legislature has determined that is not the standard to be used by the courts. An equal division of assets could result in the forced sale of assets and and unfair result considering all of the circumstances of the parties.

In Washington the legal standard is the division of assets and liabilities that results in a fair and equitable division. If the parties cannot decide what this is, then the court will divide things as the court deems fair and equitable.

If the two spouses have equal standards of living (income and expenses) at the time of divorce, and equal division of assets may be fair. If however they do not have equal standards of living (one has been a homemaker while the other has advanced their career), one may require a greater share of the property to cushion the income loss they will suffer at divorce. In that situation, the court may deem it fair and equitable to give that spouse a greater than equal division of the assets.

The Renton law firm of Mogren, Glessner & Roti, represents clients in a variety of family law cases. Please visit our web page at Seattle Divorce Lawyers for more information.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Talk to an Attorney by Phone?

Can I talk to an attorney by telephone? Yes, if you call our office, we usually have an attorney available to take your phone call in person. If no one is available, we will try to return your call within a few hours. If you have a brief question, we will try to assist you by phone. If you have complicated facts or questions, it is usually better to set an appointment with an attorney so we can get all of the relevant information and fully discuss the issues with you. If you have a question, please feel free to call us at 425-255-4542.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Half Marathon

Well, I just ran my first half marathon (13.1 miles) on Labor Day. My daughter and I trained over the summer and had fun running and finishing the race together. It was a great accomplishment for both of us.