By: Oladeji M. Tiamiyu J.D. ’20
Tim* never could imagine how complicated his taxes would become. A disabled veteran following physical injuries from military service, Tim found a steady job. He later discovered his former wife embezzled a large sum of money from her employer.
Embezzlement, though illegal, is subject to similar tax requirements as other forms of income. Since the late 1930s, individuals filing joint tax returns are jointly liable for omitted income or understatements on a tax return. The creation of innocent spouse relief revealed a clear Congressional intent to sever joint liability when one’s spouse accrues unlawful taxable income without the other’s knowledge. The relevant statutory recognition of innocent spouse relief is Section 6015 of the Internal Revenue Code, specifically sections 6015(c) and 6015(f). Section 6015(c) allows divorced or separated individuals to be responsible only for the portion of joint tax liabilities that is attributable to their activity. Section 6015(f) is an equitable vehicle that uses the totality of circumstances to consider whether innocent spouse relief should be granted.
The IRS was initially willing to grant Tim innocent spouse relief until his wife alleged during divorce proceedings that he had known of her embezzlement. As a result, the IRS assessed Tim a liability of over $100,000 in taxes, interest, and penalties.
Tim’s case has now reached the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. Although granting innocent spouse relief for one year, the tax court denied relief following his former wife’s criminal conviction. In denying that relief, the tax court overlooked a host of important factors that weighed in his favor. The 7th Circuit will need to better balance the government’s interest in collecting taxes with the equitable principal of relief for individuals lacking knowledge of illegal income accrued by a spouse.
Tim’s background and his actions show that he did not have knowledge of the embezzlement. His former wife handled their financial matters, while Tim had limited knowledge and experience in finance, accounting, and taxes. In addition, there is no evidence that he ever knew of her criminal conviction before the return in dispute was filed. He provided his financial information to her tax preparer.
Helping Tim receive the relief he deserves has been a great legal experience. Most of my work focused on writing the legal brief that will be submitted to the 7th Circuit, participating in mediation with the Tax Division of the Department of Justice, and communicating with our client to set procedural expectations. The government shutdown added complexities to our work because the mediation process was delayed. I am humbled by the procedural and substantive legal issues that my co-law student advocate—Rocky Li ‘20—and I have had exposure to. We have benefited from working with Keith Fogg and Carlton Smith, our clinical supervisors who are also among the nation’s leading tax experts. If Tim does not settle, our team is optimistic that the 7th Circuit will recognize the injustice he has been subjected to.
Oladeji M. Tiamiyu is a 2L at Harvard Law School. This post was published by the Office of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs on April 12, 2019.
*Name and some identifying details have been changed to protect client confidentiality.