Every year, on or around April 15, millions of wives are asked by their husbands to sign a joint income tax return. My husband used to say "Sign here Honey" at 9:00 pm on April 15 as he raced into the house with the tax return he'd just picked up from his accountant.
"The post office is open till midnight, so let's do this right now," he'd say. Most wives sign and don't give it a second thought. In fact, they are relieved that they don't have to be involved in what they consider to be, like mowing the lawn or cleaning out the garage, their husband's job.
But "Sign here Honey" may be three little words that can come back to haunt you if you are ever divorced or widowed. Whether the return is prepared by your husband, an accountant or H.R. Block, once you sign the return, you are attesting to your understanding and agreement that the information as stated on the return is accurate.
My friend Betty earns a six figure income with a large corporation. She manages huge budgets and financial commitments affecting hundreds of employees. But when it involves her marital finances, Betty reverts to the traditional role of wife.
Her husband Mike manages the finances at home, works with the accountant to prepare the income tax return and brings it home just in time to get it mailed before midnight on April 15. When he says "Sign here, Honey," Betty signs, relieved that Mike is taking care of something she doesn't want to be involved with.
During her divorce proceedings a few years ago, Betty was asked if she saw the tax returns annually. She did. Did she review them? No, frankly, she trusted her husband. Wasn't she concerned about what she was signing? No. Three years after their divorce was final, Betty was wrangling with the IRS. Did she have copies of the returns that she signed? No, she didn't.
If she had, she might have discovered that her husband was underreporting their income. Betty protested that she didn't know, her husband prepared the returns, she would never intentionally defraud, she's sorry and so on.
No matter - It's nothing personal. Community property law requires that she repay the government half of the taxes owed when she was still married. Her half amounted to nearly $75,000, a huge amount of money for someone whose lifestyle had been severely compromised as a result of the divorce.
If you're not interested in the tax return, you should be. It's an integral part of your marriage and will give you a closer look at what's really going on financially in your marriage. You might discover that your husband has more income than you thought. You might find an IRA or a KEOGH plan that you didn't know about. Perhaps there is a business partnership you need to know about if your husband dies.
Tax time is a good opportunity to learn about investments which belong to both of you, but which you typically don't pay attention to because your husband is the one who interacts with the broker.
How do you learn more? Ask your husband for one thing. Husbands aren't necessarily trying to hide things from you by doing the taxes. They do them because you may want or expect them too. If he is preparing the return, your husband might be delighted that you're interested.
If an accountant is doing your joint return, attend the meeting with your husband. This is a good place to ask questions because the accountant can explain things to you that even your husband often doesn't understand.
The point is, you have to ask, especially if you've made it a point not to be involved over the years. "Sign here Honey" takes on a totally different meaning when you're participating as an informed partner.