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Don't Let Divorce Destroy You at Tax Time

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divorce taxes
Divorce is one of the hardest things you may ever go through -- both emotionally and financially. But while you're focused on your now-adversarial relationship with your ex, you shouldn't forget to keep an eye on another entity that may be after a larger chunk of your assets thanks to your split: The IRS. Turns out, divorce has a huge impact on your taxes, and knowing what's at stake can help you avoid major complications later on.

Here are some of the things to keep in mind as you go through the divorce process.

Filing Status

Checking the box for either married or single may seem like the simplest thing in the world, but it gets complicated with divorce. The IRS wants to know your legal marital status as of the end of the year you're filing for. So even if you've filed your paperwork, if your divorce isn't final by Dec. 31, then you'll be considered married for the year.

However, there's an exception that allows separated parents to claim the favorable head of household status, which gives you greater deductions. To qualify, you must have paid more than half your housing costs for the year, lived apart from your spouse during the last six months of the tax year, and your dependent child must have lived in your home for more than half the year.

Exemptions for Children

The question of who gets to claim exemptions for children can make a huge difference to your tax bill. Typically, the test depends on which parent the child lives with for more than half the year. But divorced or separated couples can essentially pick who gets the exemption for children by signing a written declaration. With the current write-off at $3,700 per child, the decision you make can determine which of you will get up to $1,300 in tax savings.

Alimony, Maintenance, and Child Support

Payments between former spouses under a divorce decree fall into different categories. Cash payments that qualify as alimony are deductible by the person who makes them and are counted as income for the person who receives them. But you can generally agree to reverse that treatment and avoid any tax consequences for payments if you prefer.

Child support, on the other hand, isn't deductible by the payer or counted as income by the recipient or the child. So as you describe certain payments in your divorce agreement, be careful because the description can change the way those payments get taxed.

Retirement Accounts

As part of a property settlement, a spouse may be entitled to part of the other spouse's IRAs or employer-sponsored retirement account. For 401(k)s and other employer plans, a qualified domestic relations order can allow you to get benefits from a spouse's plan and treat them as if they're your own, thereby avoiding potentially disastrous tax consequences. Under certain circumstances, you may be able to roll 401(k) money into an IRA of your own.

Property Transfers

In general, neither spouse will realize any capital gain or loss or other tax consequences from receiving or giving up property in a divorce decree. But if you later sell property that you received due to divorce, you'll then have to pay taxes on gains, based on the original tax basis of the property you received.

To be treated as part of the divorce, a property transfer must be complete within a year of the date the marriage legally ended, unless it was specifically provided for under the divorce agreement. In that case, you have up to six years to make transfers, although later ones may still be valid if you can show valid reasons for the delay.

Community Property

Finally, most states treat each spouse's income as his or her own, even when it's jointly reported on a tax return. But in community property states, which include Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin, different rules may apply. As a result, you may be treated as having earned part of your former spouse's income during the year in which you divorce.

The problem here is that you may have no idea how much money your former spouse made. Accordingly, the IRS won't penalize you for mistakenly leaving out community property income as long as you can show that you had no reason to know about the income and that it wouldn't be fair to force you to include it as your own income.

Learn More

As you'd expect, there are all sorts of nuances beyond these general rules. Fortunately, the IRS makes it easy to get more information about the tax impact of divorce and separation. Just click here and see everything the IRS has to say on the subject.


Motley Fool contributor Dan Caplinger hopes you'll never need to use this advice. You can follow him on Twitter here.


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choro73851

But why do women want to destroy? is it nature or nurture?

July 23 2012 at 11:17 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
skibuff52

What are you talking about, women destroy everything, and we still have to take the bullet

July 23 2012 at 8:47 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
victor.laslow

"How Divorce Can Destroy You at Tax Time" Tax Time? What about for the rest of your alimony paying life?

July 23 2012 at 3:33 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to victor.laslow's comment
ray allen

Amen to that.

What is frustrating to me is that the purpose of what is labeled as 'child support' is to preserve the children's (and by inference, the custodial parent's) LIFESTYLE.

This implies significant amounts of hidden alimony.

To top it off, my family court judge will ask but not order a non-working custodial parent to let the non-custodial parent (who is paying child support) to claim their children for tax purposes.

And the courts wonder why non-custodial parents aren't happy about being seen as just a 'child support' check who is allowed to visit with their children at the custodial parents whim...

July 23 2012 at 4:36 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Douglas Family

FYI sis. Love, Tony

July 23 2012 at 3:26 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply