By Jen Fletcher, 2017 Get It Back Campaign Intern
Leaving an abusive partner can be a difficult decision, especially when exacerbated by financial insecurity and economic hardship. Fortunately, survivors of domestic violence can safely file their taxes and take steps towards financial independence with support. Here are four things to know about tax time.
1. File a tax return even if you don’t have a filing requirement
Filing a tax return is important to help establish financial stability. Even if you earn less than the income amount required to file a tax return, you may benefit by filing and receiving a tax refund if you qualify for tax benefits like the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).
If you are married to an abusive partner and have not legally divorced, you can file a tax return as “Married Filing Separately.” People who file as “Married Filing Separately” may be eligible to claim the EITC; however, this filing status means you might not qualify for other credits and benefits. Regardless, filing taxes may put you in a better position to claim tax benefits later
2. Check if your state has an address confidentiality program
If you are concerned that an abuser could find you through the address on your tax return, there are protections to help maintain your safety. Applying for an address confidentiality program allows you to establish an alternate mailing address (often a post office box) and other privacy safeguards that can protect your tax return and public documents. Search to see if your state has an address confidentiality program here.
3. Find out if you are eligible for special tax relief
Many abusive partnerships involve some degree of financial control. You may have signed a joint tax return without fully knowing or understanding its content. Different forms of tax relief are available if you have a tax-related concern that involves an abusive spouse or former spouse.
- Innocent spouse relief: reduces or eliminates a spouse’s liability on a joint return in certain cases.
- Injured spouse relief: releases a spouse from liability for certain past-due tax debt that are attributable to the other spouse.
- Separation of liability: divides tax liability based on ability to pay for spouses who are legally separated or no longer married.
- Equitable relief: divides tax liability based on the adjusted gross income of each spouse, but does not clear either spouse of the total liability.
- Reasonable cause relief: provides clearance from the obligation to file a tax return or pay penalties if you can present compelling facts to show why you were unable to do so on time.
Not everyone is eligible for these forms of relief. In most cases, you will need tax documents from previous years. If these documents aren’t readily available, applying for tax relief may be an involved and lengthy process.
4. Get Help
Some VITA sites offer year-round services and can help you file prior year tax returns or amend a return so that you get the tax benefits that you qualify for. If you are eligible for special tax relief or need assistance with other domestic violence matters, free or low-cost help is available through Low Income Taxpayer Clinics, the Taxpayer Advocate Service, or Legal Aid. (Most VITA sites are not trained to assist with the tax relief described above.)
Free virtual tax filing is also available through Code for America’s Get Your Refund service, which provides free tax assistance for individuals who earn less than $66,000. Get Your Refund is a free and safe alternative to prepare your tax return without risking in-person interaction. To start, you will upload your tax documents from your computer or phone. Then, an IRS-certified volunteer will call or text you to discuss, prepare, and review your tax return for filing.
There are additional resources that can help you establish economic security beyond tax time. Many VITA sites and community organizations offer programs to help with budgeting, saving, wealth-building, and career development. These programs can provide critical tools for building financial independence.