An Empirical Study of Innocent Spouse Relief: Do Courts Implement Congress's Legislative Intent

Stephanie Hunter McMahon, U. of Cincinnati


Under existing law spouses are jointly and severally liable for their joint tax returns. As a result, the IRS may pursue either spouse for any taxes owed on those returns. Concerned that the IRS was seeking taxes from the “wrong” spouse under the joint and several liability regime, Congress expanded relief for “innocent” spouses in 1998. Many critics of this relief complain that, as it is applied, the statute offers too little relief to spouses, generally wives, who sign returns while being deceived or compelled by their mates. However, there has been no empirical study of whether the current relief is, in fact, what Congress intended. This article fills the void by first evaluating the provision’s legislative history to determine what relief Congress intended to provide when it acted in 1998. The article then examines the 444 cases appealing for relief under this provision in order to evaluate whether judges are deciding cases invoking the provision in ways consistent with that congressional objective. Thus, this article provides an empirical study of the success and failure of the innocent spouse provision from Congress’s perspective.