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Divorce-Related Federal Income Tax Principles


Prior to filing for divorce, various federal tax considerations should be reviewed due to their potentially profound implications. Among the major issues commonly covered in a divorce decree or agreement are: alimony, sometimes referred to as “spousal” or “separate maintenance” support; division of property; and child support. Each has its own tax treatment and implications.

Division of Property

Most divorces involve a division of the property owned by the couple. Such a division of property is not usually a taxable event, i.e., neither owes taxes nor gets a deduction from income because he or she receives certain property as a result of the divorce.

There are, however, tax implications following divorce that affect future taxes. More specifically, selling personal and real property in the future may require spouses who received such property (pursuant to a divorce) to pay taxes in connection to that property.

Personal and real property have a “basis” for federal tax purposes. The basis is usually the purchase price of the property. When the property is sold later, the amount by which the sales price exceeds the basis is called “capital gain.” Capital gain is usually taxable at special rates. Thus, when property distributed pursuant to a divorce decree is subsequently sold by the receiving spouse, the receiving spouse may be required to pay taxes on the proceeds of the sale.

For example, in a divorce, the wife may receive the family home while the husband might receive stock or other investments equal in value to the house. If the house has a lower basis than the stock, when both are sold, the husband could end up with significantly more money, because he owes fewer capital gains tax.

On the other hand, under tax law applicable at the beginning of 2004, the first $250,000 (for individuals) or $500,000 (for couples) of the taxable gain on the sale of a qualifying personal residence is exempt from tax. In light of these tax issues, selling the house before the divorce, then dividing the proceeds, might make more sense.

Child Support

The parent who is granted custody of the child or children from the marriage usually receives a set amount of money per month as “child support.” Child support payments are not includable in the taxable income of the receiving spouse and are not tax-deductible by the spouse making the payments.

If the written agreement or divorce decree orders both child support and alimony and the spouse making the payments pays less than the required total amount, for tax purposes, the child support obligation is deemed paid in full first. Only money exceeding the amount of the child support obligation is treated as alimony.

Alimony or “Spousal Support”

In general, for federal income tax purposes, alimony and “separate maintenance payments” are “deductible” from the income of the spouse paying and includable in income for the recipient. “Deductible” for federal income tax purposes means it is subtracted from a taxpayer’s gross income before taxes are calculated, resulting in lower taxes. Taxpayers with a threshold amount of deductions must file a particular form with the IRS when paying income taxes and list such deductions.

Between the time a couple separates and a divorce decree is granted, one spouse may pay money for the support of the other spouse. These payments are deductible as long as they are made pursuant to a decree, court order, or a “written separation agreement.” In order for alimony payments to be deductible, federal tax laws and regulations require the following:

  • The payments are made in cash, check, or money order (no promissory notes, transfers or use of property, transfer of services, etc.) to the spouse, or to a third party in lieu of alimony at the written request of the recipient spouse, stating the payments are intended as alimony, and the request is received before the tax return is filed
  • The divorce decree, order, or the written agreement of the parties does not identify the payments as something other than alimony
  • The spouses do not file a joint return with each other
  • The spouses are not members of the same household when the payments are made, if they are legally separated under a decree of divorce or separate maintenance – separation within the family home is not sufficient
  • There is no liability to make the alimony payments after the death of the recipient spouse – if part of the payment amount continues after death, that portion is not deemed alimony, and if all of the payment continues, none of it is alimony
  • The alimony payments are not treated as child support
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