As a general rule, debts incurred before your wedding don't carry forward into your marriage. Saying "I do" doesn't mean you also agree to pay the Internal Revenue Service for your spouse's premarital tax omissions and liabilities. Exceptions exist, however. They depend largely on where you live and whether you elect to file joint married returns going forward.
Joint Married Returns
Typically, the only taxpayers liable for an IRS liability are the ones who signed the return in question. If your spouse and his previous partner filed a joint married return, the IRS will look to them for payment, not you. You can't "inherit" this debt. It could affect you, however, because the IRS can satisfy the debt from your spouse's separate property – anything he owned before you married or that he acquired by way of gift or inheritance. If your home is your spouse's premarital property, for example, the IRS can place a lien against it. The IRS can also garnish his wages in most states, although not your own. Exceptions to this rule exist, however.
Community Property States
The rules are different in the nine community property states. These jurisdictions view all marital property as owned equally by both spouses, including wages and earnings. The IRS follows state rules for spousal liability. In Wisconsin and Arizona, the IRS can take all your spouse's earnings and half of your own paychecks – the half that represents your spouse's ownership under community property law. Texas, Nevada, New Mexico and Washington allow the IRS to place liens against 50 percent of your marital property for tax debts, in addition to your spouse's separate property, but Texas's rules are particularly complicated. If you live there, you might want to speak with a tax professional to find out where you stand. In California, Idaho and Louisiana, 100 percent of the marital community's property is vulnerable.
Even if you don't live in one of the community property states, your own income and separate property might be of interest to the IRS. You don't risk losing it to garnishment or lien, but if your spouse makes an offer in compromise or otherwise tries to negotiate a payment plan, the IRS might want to know what you earn and what you own in your separate name. Your financial contribution to the household affects how much available income your spouse has to satisfy his IRS obligation.
Injured Spouse Relief
If you file a joint married return with your spouse and he owes taxes from a previous marriage, you might be in for a bit of a headache. You won't receive your share of any resulting refund unless you take steps to avoid its seizure to pay the old debt. You can file IRS Form 8379, an Injured Spouse Allocation, with your joint 1040 tax return. This alerts the IRS that you're not legally liable for your spouse's separate tax debt and that you have a right to a portion of the refund. You must have reported at least some income on the joint return to qualify, however. You must also have paid some taxes over the course of the year, either through wage withholding or estimated payments if you're self-employed.
Beverly Bird has been writing professionally for over 30 years. She specializes in personal finance and w, bankruptcy, and she writes as the tax expert for The Balance.