Married couples who file jointly have “joint and severable” liability for any resulting tax debts (i.e., the IRS can come after both, or either of them individually, for the entire tax liability). But if one spouse is successful with his/her innocent spouse claim, then the IRS ceases collection of the tax debt as to that spouse.
Historically the IRS innocent spouse program was not available to spouses who failed to file their claim for innocent spouse relief within two years from the date of the return. However, the IRS has not enforced the two-year deadline at least since 2011. And this week a proposal has been set in motion that would eliminate the two-year statute of limitation altogether. Instead, an innocent spouse would have the full 10 years on the collection statute to file for tax relief.
Many of the taxpayers who are granted innocent spouse relief are victims of physical and/or emotional abuse. These are people who probably did not do their due diligence in knowing what was on the return when they signed, but who were not in the best position to question what was on the return either. They are people (usually women) who probably should have confirmed that the taxes were being paid, but who feared the repercussions of asking about it. One thing that innocent spouses all have in common is that they were left in the dark about important financial information and decisions, including taxes. So, later, when they get a bill or a collection notice, they are caught completely off guard. The IRS recognizes that it isn’t fair to enforce the standard “joint & several” liability in these situations, and they appear to be moving in the direction of opening the innocent spouse program up to a lot more people. Also, under the proposed rules, the IRS would not be permitted to take enforced collection actions while an innocent spouse application is pending.