The Court Cannot Compel Either Party to File Joint Tax Returns During the Pendency of a Divorce Action

A number of clients have asked me whether one party in a contentious divorce case can compel the other party to file a joint federal personal income tax return by petitioning the court to order the other party to file a joint personal income tax return. The situation is made more complex when one party earns little or no income and suspects that the other party may owe money to the Internal Revenue Service.

Connecticut case law takes the position that a trial court cannot force a party to file a joint return unless the parties have agreed to do so. In the 1991 case of Kane v. Parry, 24 Conn.App. 307 (1991), the Appellate Court reversed the judgment of the trial court requiring the plaintiff to file joint federal returns for the years after 1983, remanding the case with direction to render judgment accordingly. In its decision, the court stated that the trial court lacks authority to deprive the plaintiff of her federal right to file a separate return. Citing the case of Wolk v. Wolk, 191 Conn. 328 (1983), the Appellate Court proclaimed that “a trial court has the authority to order a party to file joint federal personal income tax returns only if there was a prior agreement between the parties to do so.” Kane v. Parry, supra at p. 315.

The 2014 case of Brown v. Brown, 143 Conn.App. 13 (2014) cited Kane v. Parry, supra, and quoted directly from that case in stating ‘A trial court has the authority to order a party to file a joint federal personal tax return if there was a prior agreement between the parties to do so. In the absence of such an agreement, the trial court cannot order the plaintiff to file joint federal personal income tax returns.’ Kane v. Parry, supra at pp. 315-316 (1991).

The Internal Revenue Code mandates that each spouse is required to file or not file jointly based upon his or her own status. Each is individually liable to the Treasury for the separate tax on his or her separate taxable income, unless the spouses elect to file a joint return.

A joint return makes each spouse jointly and severally liable to the U.S. Treasury on all income earned by the parties including new debt in the amount of total tax owed plus penalties. That means the innocent spouse could end up paying the tax due on the other party’s income. In fact, the innocent spouse could have a tax lien placed on his or her property. Sometimes it is better not to file jointly and the court does not have the authority to order a party to file a joint return.