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Q. I just found out that my husband hasn’t filed our last two tax returns. I actually signed them, but he never sent them off. I’m guessing that’s because we owed money. What can we do?

A. There’s plenty you can do, and you should start immediately.

First, understand that if your income is below certain thresholds, you are not required to file.

Even then, if you had tax withheld, you should file in order to receive your refund, said Bernie Kiely, a certified financial planner and certified public accountant with Kiely Capital Management in Morristown, N.J..

“If you are required to file but fail to do so, it will eventually catch up to you,” Kiely said. “It will not go away on its own.”

Eventually, the Internal Revenue Service will send you a computer-generated notice informing you that it has not received your return. If you still don’t file your return, the IRS will eventually file a return for you, Kiely said.

When the IRS files a return for a taxpayer who refuses the file on their own, the IRS starts with all income that has been reported to the government through W-2s, 1099s for interest and dividends, and 1099-Bs for investment transactions, Kiely said.

The IRS will assume you are single and have no dependents. Additionally, it includes only the standard deduction, which means it doesn’t include any itemized deductions such as medical, state, local or property tax taxes or charitable contributions, Kiely said. If you are self-employed, the IRS will include in income all income reported on forms 100-Misc, but no business expenses. If a security sales transaction is reported, with no cost basis, the IRS will treat the transaction as short-term with a zero cost basis.

From all this information the IRS will calculate your income, self-employment tax and withholdings, Kiely said, and it will send you a bill for the balance due.

“If you still don’t reply they will then get mean — real mean,” he said. “The IRS will start charging penalties for failure to file and failure to pay plus interest, which accrues very fast. They will then garnish you pay, freeze your bank and brokerage accounts. Eventually they will seize your account balances, leaving you with no way to pay your bills.”

Kiely said no CPA, attorney or anyone else can get you out of your obligation to file and pay your income tax, so do it now.

The sooner you file, the better, but it may be smart to first evaluate you are personally better off filing married separate or married filing joint, said Gail Rosen, a Martinsville,N.J.-based certified public accountant,

“If you and your husband file joint returns, each of you are jointly and severally liable for the tax on your combined income, include any additional tax that the IRS assesses, plus interest and most penalties,” she said. “This means that the IRS can come after either of you to collect the full amount.”

Although there are provisions in the law that offer relief from joint and several liability, each of those provisions has its limitations, Rosen said. So, even if a joint return results in a smaller tax liability, you may choose to file a separate return if you want to be certain of being responsible only for your own tax.

In most cases, Rosen said, filing jointly will offer the most tax savings, particularly where the spouses have different income levels. The “averaging” effect of combining the two incomes can bring some of it out of a higher tax bracket, she said.

Either way, she said, you should file as soon as possible to lower the failure-to-pay penalty, the failure-to-file penalty, plus the interest, which adds up.

“Even if you can’t pay, the sooner you file the better to lower the penalties and interest,” Rosen said. “You can apply online to a payment agreement with the IRS if you owe $50,000 or less in combined individual income tax, penalties and interest have filed all required returns. If you owe more than $50,000, you need to complete a more complex form to request an installment agreement.”

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